Hearing management

20 October 2017

Selective hearing: how humans focus on what they want to hear

Humans excel at selectively listening to a target speaker when there is a lot of background noise. New research has found out how this works.

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Our ears do an incredible job of translating the sounds around us into information that our brains can understand. It's as automatic as breathing and happens without us really giving the process much thought.

Humans also have "selective hearing", which means that we are able to focus on what we want to hear, while screening out less important background noise.  

Voice pitch plays a role in our ability to hear someone in a crowded setting, British researchers say.

This process is called selective attention. It was known that selective attention occurs in a part of the brain called the auditory cortex, which processes speed information. But what triggers it was unclear.

Selective process

"Humans excel at selectively listening to a target speaker when there are a lot of background noises, such as many competing voices," explained study author Tobias Reichenbach.

"In this din of chatter, the auditory cortex switches into action and with laser focus, processes information that enables us to zone in on one conversation. But how these selective process works has been debated," said Reichenbach, of Imperial College London's bioengineering department.

In experiments, 14 volunteers listened to competing conversations while electrodes were fitted to their heads. The researchers discovered that a group of neurons in the brain's auditory stem play a role in selective attention. The auditory stem is located below the auditory cortex.

The study was published recently in the journal eLife.

Improving hearing aids

Specifically, these neurons respond more to the pitch of the voice of a person someone is trying to listen to than to the pitch of other voices.

"Our study is showing us that the pitch of the speaker's voice we want to focus on is an important cue that is used in the auditory brainstem to focus on a target speaker. This helps us to concentrate on a voice while filtering out all the background noise," Reichenbach explained in a university news release.

This line of research could lead to hearing aids that are better able to filter out background noise, which can be a problem for hearing-impaired people in noisy places.

Image credit: iStock

 

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Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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