The Talking Brain at UCL Bloomsbury theatre

26 February 2008

Duncan Wisbey, impressionist and voice artist on Alistair McGowan’s ‘Big Impression’, and Professor Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, will explore the human voice from the perspective of the brain in a talk given during Brain Awareness Week. The duo will discuss how our voices are perceived and produced, and how artists can change their voice to make themselves sound older, or taller, or like someone else altogether. The talk will be held at the UCL Bloomsbury theatre in London on Tuesday 11 March 2008 at 1pm.

Prior to the talk, Duncan Wisbey has had his brain scanned to see how his brain activity changes when he is talking in different accents, and when he is impersonating someone. The fMRI brain imaging was carried out by Professor Scott of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

In the scanner, Duncan was presented with a ‘quick fire’ series of impersonations and accents to produce, which were interleaved with him speaking normally. These were all presented randomly, and Duncan had to produce familiar phrases (such as ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’) in all the different voices. The impersonations included Anthony Worrall Thompson, Cary Grant and Eric Morecambe, and the accents included baleful Cockney, tired Australian and ‘nerdy’ Estuary English.

The results showed that specific brain systems located in the parietal lobe, sensory motor strip and supplementary motor area come into play when Duncan changes his voice, suggesting he uses brain areas associated with visual imagery, bodily representations, and vocalisations. 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.

Acoustic analyses of Duncan’s voice when he is producing different impersonations were also carried out.  Duncan has a particular skill of starting with one speaker and then changing one aspect of his voice until a different speaker can be heard (for example, Peter Snow to Jools Holland, or Paul McCartney to Michael Caine). The lecture will explore how changes in the acoustic properties of Duncan’s speech help make these transitions.

Professor Scott will also attempt to use delayed auditory feedback to see if Duncan can be prevented from being able to perform an impersonation accurately (though not permanently...).

Professor Scott of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said: “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.”

Duncan Wisbey said: “By analysing my vocal gymnastics, not only have I discovered what my brain is doing while I’m pretending to be Rolf Harris, but this could also help to shed light on stroke victims who are trying to regain control of their speech.”

This event is part of Brain Awareness Week and National Science & Engineering Week.

To find out more about Professor Scott, the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience or events at the UCL Bloomsbury theatre, use the links at