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<p>The engine roars and the crowd cheers. What just zoomed by – was it a race car or a motorcycle? With your eyes closed, can you tell the difference?</p>

Can Motorsports Fans 'See' with Their Ears?

Researchers with the Indiana University School of Medicine Department of Otolaryngology decided to pursue that question. Can people actually “see” with their ears? Previous studies have shown that musicians can develop auditory expertise intuitively and through training. So what auditory skills can long-time motorsports fans develop?

Tonya R. Bergeson-Dana, Ph.D., director of the DeVault Otologic Research Laboratory, and two colleagues spent a day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway investigating that question.

Dr. Bergeson-Dana, Michael Harris, M.D., an otolaryngology resident in training, and Jaimie Gilbert, PhD., a postdoctoral student in audiology, wanted to know if racing fans with no formal training could develop an ear for the different sounds of engines.

Earlier this month, the team spent a day at the Speedway exposing 21 study participants in a controlled environment to different types of engine sounds. The study group varied from die-hard race fans to others who had attended no races.

Each person was introduced to a series of sounds for 3 seconds each of Formula One cars, Indy cars, NASCAR engines, motorcycles and another group of sounds that included tractors and other racing sounds.

“We wanted to know if a person with more racing experience could extract more information from a sound than from someone with no experience,” said Dr. Bergeson-Dana. “Typically expertise is something that involves formal training but there is some evidence this group has developed some auditory expertise without formal training.”

The participants were played:

  • Three-second clips of engine sounds to test their ability to identify them
  • Pairs of three-second clips of the same engine sounds to judge ability to discriminate between types of engine sounds
  • A series of environmental sounds as a control measure
  • A series of pitches or tones to determine ability to discriminate tones of various frequencies

There was a direct correlation between the number of motorsports events attended with the person’s ability to distinguish the type of racing vehicle heard but there was no correlation between attendance and environmental sound identification or tone discrimination, the researchers said.

“This research is interesting because it helps explain how the brain handles auditory information. We know that musicians develop auditory skills based on years of formal training, but this study shows that people can also develop a form of auditory expertise with only informal experience,“ said Dr. Bergeson-Dana.

The next step in this may be to take this research to pit crews and drivers to see how they use auditory experience to make split-second decisions, said Dr. Bergeson-Dana

The research was made possible through National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowships.