UCL in the News: How our brain controls our accent

8 March 2008

  • ‘The Times’

Why do some people hold on to their accents all their lives while others drop them overnight? Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist from UCL, has spent 16 years researching speech: how we formulate words, how we come by our accents and how we decode what is being said to us.

To help her understand how our brain negotiates the complex task of talking, Professor Scott has enlisted the help of the television impressionist Duncan Wisbey. …

By scanning Wisbey’s brain she discovered that much more of the brain is involved in talking and learning speech than researchers previously thought. The results will be presented at a public event in London next week as part of Brain Awareness week. …

She hopes that by working out how impressionists use their brains to learn to mimic people, new techniques could be developed and used by speech therapists to help patients with communication problems. …

While lying as still as possible in a brain scanner at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Wisbey was asked to repeat easy-to-remember phrases such as “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” in rapid five-second bursts. …

The results showed clearly that four different parts of his brain were being activated. Only two of these were connected with speech and language, and Professor Scott was confused.

She then realised that the other two areas were connected with movement. These regions, responsible for visualising images and for body movement, were working overtime when the impressionist was forming his speech. Wisbey was literally thinking himself into someone’s skin when he was adopting a different accent. …

As a result, Professor Scott began thinking that voice coaches for actors may hold the key to helping speech therapists develop exercises for people with communication problems.

Professor Scott believes that her research into the brain and accents may prove useful in her work with stroke patients. …

The Talking Brain event will be held at the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, Gordon Street, London WC1, on Tuesday. To register, e-mail Rosalyn.lawrence@ucl.ac.uk. …