“What we hear and how we listen can influence our other senses” – Merle Fairhurst

MerleFairhurstWhat is the most interesting paper you came across recently? Why?

Cecere et al. (2015, Current Biology) test and put forward an interesting and rather neat proposal that individual differences in alpha band oscillations modulate the temporal integration window. Testing the well-established two-flash illusion and combining EEG and tACS, the group show a positive correlation between the size of the peak of the oscillation and the size of the temporal window of the illusion. This is a technically and empirically elegant illustration of how we must go beyond a simple description of multisensory interactions and instead explore the deeper underlying mechanisms and how these vary across individuals.


What’s your preferred sensory modality? And why?

The sense of touch; as a musician one would assume that my sense of hearing would be at the top of the list but there is a subtle dichotomy to this proximal sense. To know if the bath water is actually the right temperature we need to evaluate and sometimes, re-evaluate. To know if something is pleasant or not (like a caress or hot sand beneath our feet), we seem to need to reflect, to test and retest. And yet on the other hand, there is a level of confidence or certainty associated with contact with our skin, through which we at least seem to have direct and immediate access to the world with which we are interacting. My original training in pain perception highlighted the lack of linearity between peripheral input and perception and although this is of course seen in the other senses, it is our implicit assumption that that which we can physically touch and grasp, we must know.


What would you like to see happening in the field in the next five years?

It is my sincere hope that the field of cognitive neuroscience continues to cross borders and that those in it will pursue more chances to collaborate; with pure psychologists for greater attention to cognitive models, with mathematicians for greater computational power and better statistics, with philosophers for improved and deeper theoretical considerations. This is particularly pertinent for the study of sensory, and of course multisensory perception where without contributions from these various specialties we are likely to come up short in the description of how we derive information about and interact with our world.


How has your research on perception changed your relation to art?

As a musician by training, I feel that I have been exceptionally fortunate to not only study various aspects of auditory processing but also to consider how what we hear and how we listen can influence our other senses. My current work with Chris Frith is fueled by a desire to know how our perception of music changes when we are interacting with others; sitting alone listening to one’s favourite string quintet versus a concert setting with a full auditorium of engaged listeners. Similarly, the interaction between what we see and hear in grand opera stagings is a complex example of multisensory perception. I now find it very difficult to not have my mind wander to thoughts of why a certain colour palette or the use of visual depth in the set is influencing my appreciation of the music.


How does your work connect to real life applications?

It is my sincere hope that my work will prompt both the academic community and the public to explore how to derive greater pleasure from interactions with the physical space we inhabit. Whether through greater attention to the (more or less) subtle interactions between our senses, a greater awareness of the power of expectation or simply knowing that sensing something together with a friend or loved one, my work typically is fueled by an interest in the enhancement or modulation of our experience of the world around us.


Any pleasant recent sensory experience you’d like to share?

My greatest pleasures almost always involve interactions with or keen observation of my children; two fairly naïve sensing creatures, experiencing a lot of the world for the first time. They recently listened to the songs of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Sound of Music for the first time. Their joy reminded me of my own, bringing back vivid memories of my first hearing of the catchy tunes. Singing together and harmonising with my miniature chorus and somehow hearing the distant echo of my own voice as impressionable 4 year old.

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