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Photo by Tom Manly, from a study led by Sophie Scott. Download PDF for poster.
‘…I go down, like this, at the end of every sentence. And I’m very stiff, I can’t move my head without moving my whole body. My lower lip is turned down all the time… I’ve got a little lisp.’
So says Duncan Wisbey, impressionist and voice artist on Alistair McGowan's Big Impression. He’s sitting in an anechoic chamber and wearing a laryngograph round his neck, as part of a study led by psychologist Professor Sophie Scott (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). Duncan has a skill of moving from one impression to another, e.g. Peter Snow to Jools Holland, and the research explores how the acoustic properties of Duncan’s speech help make these transitions.
Duncan also had his brain scanned to see how its activity changes when he is talking in different accents, and when he is impersonating someone. The results showed that specific brain systems located in the parietal lobe and sensory motor strip come into play when Duncan changes his voice, suggesting he uses brain areas associated with visual imagery and bodily representations. Duncan says he uses strong visual images to guide his impressions and accents, and the brain imaging results corroborate this.
Furthermore, when Duncan talks with an accent, brain imaging shows more activation in ventral prefrontal and anterior temporal lobe areas, suggesting that he may be paying more attention to the sound of his voice than when he is impersonating someone specific.
Professor Scott says: ‘The human voice is unparalleled
in nature for its structure and complexity, and this has been a wonderful chance to investigate the brain of a skilled voice artist.
I want to develop this study into a functional and anatomical investigation of voice artists such as Duncan. Techniques developed by voice coaches could well be of interest to people working in speech and language therapy, and possibly even contribute to the rehabilitation of stroke sufferers who have lost speech.’

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