A BYU alumnus has more than heeded the call to listen to the prophet’s voice — he has broken ground in voice analysis by carefully studying 36 of Gordon B. Hinckley’s addresses.
Dr. Eric Hunter of the National Center for Voice and Speech at the University of Utah spoke in the Physics and Astronomy Department’s Colloquia last week on the methods he and his research team have used to track health and aging just by the sound of someone’s voice.
By the year 2030, the elderly population in the United States will double. By developing better methods of voice analysis, Hunter hopes to be able to identify early signs of aging and physiological changes so that better care can be provided for this growing demographic.
Several years ago in Denver, one of Hunter’s LDS colleagues noticed during General Conference that President Hinckley’s voice would crack in a predictable way based on new understanding of speech production.
This sparked Hunter’s curiosity. Using recordings from the BYU speeches database, Hunter and some of his students tested this hypothesis and have been able to analyze changes in President Hinckley’s voice as he aged.
“If the voice mechanism is changing, so is swallowing, lung usage and related pulmonary function,” Hunter said. “If some of these characteristics that we’ve measured can be tracked over time, we can look for changes that might reflect changes in such vital life functions as breathing and swallowing.”
Hunter found that pulmonary function decreased linearly with age, in President Hinckley’s case. Also, complexity of language began to decrease at about the same time, which could possibly be attributed to neurological changes. Hunter and his students are working to find similar sets of addresses or speeches to be analyzed hoping that they can find similar results across many test subjects.
“If we could go talk to his personal physician, he’d probably start noticing swallowing issues at about 75 or 76 [years],” Hunter said. “We probably could have predicted five years before that he was going to notice that.”
With the methodology that Hunter and his team have developed, recordings from BYU’s and the Church’s archives can be used in a wide range of other research paths. His work will be significant across a variety of fields, including communications sciences, medicine, speech therapy, linguistics, biomechanics and physics.