Thursday, February 07, 2013

The cocktail party effect is enhanced by vision.

Golumbic et al. show that watching someone we are trying to hear and understand in a crowded noisy setting sharpens up the auditory processing in our brains that suppresses unwanted sounds from our surround:
Our ability to selectively attend to one auditory signal amid competing input streams, epitomized by the “Cocktail Party” problem, continues to stimulate research from various approaches. How this demanding perceptual feat is achieved from a neural systems perspective remains unclear and controversial. It is well established that neural responses to attended stimuli are enhanced compared with responses to ignored ones, but responses to ignored stimuli are nonetheless highly significant, leading to interference in performance. We investigated whether congruent visual input of an attended speaker enhances cortical selectivity in auditory cortex, leading to diminished representation of ignored stimuli. We recorded magnetoencephalographic signals from human participants as they attended to segments of natural continuous speech. Using two complementary methods of quantifying the neural response to speech, we found that viewing a speaker's face enhances the capacity of auditory cortex to track the temporal speech envelope of that speaker. This mechanism was most effective in a Cocktail Party setting, promoting preferential tracking of the attended speaker, whereas without visual input no significant attentional modulation was observed.
These neurophysiological results underscore the importance of visual input in resolving perceptual ambiguity in a noisy environment. Since visual cues in speech precede the associated auditory signals, they likely serve a predictive role in facilitating auditory processing of speech, perhaps by directing attentional resources to appropriate points in time when to-be-attended acoustic input is expected to arrive.

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