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Ventriloquism: Fooling the Brain

Theres nothing funnier than a good ventriloquist, called vents in the show business world. Using a variety of dummies, these professional entertainers keep audiences in stitches. Why? Well, for one thing, those hand-carved dummies can say things the vent couldnt say. Ever notice how outspoken a dummy is? Thats one of the reasons were so fascinated. No restrictions. No manners. No civility. And all of those things are part of any good comedy routine.

But theres another reason that vents and their oaken protgs intrigue us. Its the ability of the performer to fool viewers brains into thinking that words are actually coming out of the mouth of that hunk of wood seated on the vents lap. At one time ventriloquism was thought to be magic or witchcraft. Now we all know that its an illusion. But how is the brain so easily fooled that characters from entertainment history like Edgar Bergen (Candice Bergens daddy) and Charlie McCarthy, Bergens wooden alter ego, continue to intrigue the same way magicians do? Why? Because there is some magic going on according to a study out of Duke University in Durham, NC.

The study, led by neurobiologist Dr. Jennifer Groh, examined brain activity in monkeys. Dr. Groh stated, "The prevailing wisdom among brain scientists has been that each of the five senses sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste is governed by its own corresponding region of the brain. Now we are beginning to appreciate that it's not that simple."

The study, published in the journal for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points to a tiny structure in the brain called the inferior colliculus. Scientists have long known that this little unit of the brain is essential to good hearing. As sound waves enter the ear, they vibrate the ear drum, which in turn, transmits those vibrations through a series of three small bones (the smallest bones in the human body, FYI) and finally, those good vibrations are delivered to the cochlea a snail-shaped, fluid-filled organ found in the inner ear.

The cochlea picks up the vibrations within the fluid it contains. These vibrations are picked up by millions of tiny hair-like appendages within the cochlea that translate these sound signals from actual, physical waves into electrical signals that can be processed by the brain.

One of the first stops these electrical impulses make when they reach the brain is the inferior colliculus. So, the medical community has known for a long time that this brain mechanism is essential to good hearing. And, because the inferior colliculus is positioned in a primitive region of the brain, researchers conclude that this hearing device in the brain has deep roots in evolution, meaning its been around for a long, long time.

The study revealed new information about the role played by the inferior colliculus in understanding and interpreting the world in which we live by demonstrating that this structure, less than one-half inch across, also picks up signals from the retina, the back portion of the eye.

The point? This little chunk of human anatomy plays an important role in synching up what we see and what we hear.

"Our results show that there are interactions between the sensory pathways [sight and sound] that occur very early in the [sensory] process, which implies that the integration of the different senses may be a more primitive process and one not requiring high-level brain function," Groh said. This means that visual and auditory information gets combined quite early, before the 'thinking part' of the brain can make sense of it."

Okay, biology class is over. Lets talk about vents.

How Ventriloquists Fool Your Brain

The Duke study demonstrates the relationship between what we see and what we hear, and how that sensory information is processed in that tiny brain mechanism. Theres a connection between sight and sound that takes place before weve had time to use our logic and other cognitive skills.

The key to fooling an audience into believing (or wanting to believe) that the dummy is actually speaking is to break the connection between what we see and what we hear. We hear the sound but the humans lips dont move. Instead, the dummys mouth, manipulated by the vent, opens and closes in time to what the human is saying.

In this way, we hear sound and we assign that sound to the dummy because we see the dummys mouth moving but not the ventriloquists who, after years of practice, has learned to speak in a characters voice without moving his or her lips.

We know its not real. When we think about it, we know how the act works, yet were always willing to enjoy the act.

The same effect occurs when watching television. Our brains are fooled into believing that the sound is coming from the TV screen even though the systems speakers are placed on the sides of the TV. And with surround-sound systems, sound comes at you from all directions but, because the inferior colliculus receives signals from the eyes and ears, the sound feels like its all coming from the TV screen.

"The eyes see the lips moving and the ears hear the sound, and the brain immediately jumps to the conclusion about the origin of the voice," Dr. Groh explained.

Bottom line: reality is perception. We choose to believe that the dummy talks and that the magician actually makes an entire elephant disappear before our eyes. Its the willing suspension of belief, coupled with the inferior colliculus, that make these entertainers so much fun to watch.

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