“Hearing” Pictures: Exploring the Visual-Ear Phenomenon

By Annmarie Hoch

At City University of London, researchers have been investigating the phenomenon of “visual ear,” in which visual cues evoke an auditory sensation of the brain. This phenomenon is present in 20% of the population and can be experienced when looking at “noisy gifs” or flashing neon signs. Some researchers think it is a type of synesthesia, an uncommon condition where seeing or hearing music notes, numbers, or letters create the perception of color in the brains of those affected. The researchers found that musicians were more likely to experience visual-ear than non-musicians. The researchers tested subjects by showing them audio and visual stimuli that could lead to the visual-ear phenomenon, asking whether they “heard” the visual stimulus, and observing their brain patterns while the participants observed the stimulus. The researchers found that for participants without visual-ear, the visual and auditory parts of their brains inhibited each other, depending on the type of stimulus. For visual-ear participants, these areas of the brain cooperated with each other to create the visual-ear phenomenon. This research supports the idea that visual-ear and synesthesia are caused by cross-wiring of different neural areas. Those participants also had better performance on both the audio and visual components than those without, which the researchers connected to improved musical ability, hypothesizing that this was why many musicians had visual-ear.


City University London. (2019, March 27). People 'hear' flashes due to disinhibited flow of signals around the brain, suggests study: Study sheds light on why some people hear the 'skipping pylon' and other 'noisy GIFs'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 2, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190327112710.htm