With the noble goal of elevating the subtleties of speech, a group of scientists at the Royal Holloway College at the University in London endured an awful task. They studied "non-professional impersonators" doing their best impressions. The scientists looked at fMRI scans as these "non-professional impersonators" imitated other people's voices and foreign accents, in hopes to learn more about non-verbal aspects of speech—like tone, style, and contextual changes.
All the participants in the study—again, identified as "non-professional impressionists"—were told to make a list of 40 different people and 40 different accents that they would try to impersonate, for science. These lists included entries like "my mom" and "Arnold Schwarzenegger," because "non-professional impressionists" are astoundingly creative. The most popular celebrities listed by NPIs were Sean Connery, Elvis, and Bill Clinton.
And it gets worse for these brave researchers. These NPIs then recited lines from nursery rhymes in these accents, all whilst subjecting their brains to a fMRI scanner. So basically, researchers attended the worst half hour of a very drunken party, then examined the fMRI scans of the most embarrassing party guests.
But the scientists discovered some interesting things. While doing voices and accents, the left anterior insula and the interior frontal gyrus lit up in the brain imagery. These areas are connected with planning and producing speech. The diagrams also showed that doing impressions lit up more parts of the brain than accents alone.
By isolating the parts of the brain that control these vocal subtleties, researchers hope they could elucidate more about rare conditions like Foreign Accent Syndrome, which dramatically changes people's speech patterns, usually occurring after brain damage. The study leader, Carolyn McGettigan, said in a statement:
"Our aim is to find out more about how the brain controls this very flexible communicative tool, which could potentially lead to new treatments for those looking to recover their own vocal identity following brain injury or a stroke."
This is the first study that examines the neural responses to identity modulation in speech production. The scientists research was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.