A whisper, if performed the right way, isn’t about hearing something at all.  A whisper is all about feeling.  A whisper is a public intimacy between two people wrapped in secretive sharing and a sensational tickling as puffs of warm words are delivered to the skin surrounding the receiver’s ear.

Here’s the science behind the secret of your whispering skin:

People listen with their skin, not just their ears. Air puffs delivered to volunteers’ hands or necks at critical times alter their ability, for better or worse, to hear certain speech sounds, a new study finds.

Tactile and auditory information, as well as other sensory inputs, interact in the brain to foster speech perception, propose linguists Bryan Gick and Donald Derrick, both of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

In many languages, speakers expel a small burst of air to make aspirated sounds. In English, for example, aspiration distinguishes “ta” from “da” and “pa” from “ba.”

Volunteers were more likely to identify aspirated syllables correctly when they heard those syllables while receiving slight, inaudible air puffs to the skin, Gick and Derrick report in the Nov. 26 Nature. Air puffs enhanced detection of aspirated ta and pa sounds and increased the likelihood of mishearing non-aspirated da and ba sounds as their aspirated counterparts, the researchers say.

Deaf children are taught to “speak” with their mouths using this “puffs of air” technique. 

A piece of paper is placed in front of the child’s mouth, and when the
successfully produces the “pah-pah-pah” and “buh-buh-buh” and
“teh-teh-teh” sounds, the aspirated air from their lips will billow the
paper away from their mouths.

Speech comes in waves and rivulets, and the movement of sound through
the air pushes
understanding, creates intimacy, and hoards secrets we long to keep but
can never hope
to hold.


  1. It was great to know the science behind the whisper David, thanks for the article!

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