Effects of talker familiarity on speech understanding and cognitive effort in complex environments.

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The long-term goal of this project is to understand the cognitive mechanisms responsible for familiar voice (FV) benefit in real-world environments, and to develop means to exploit the FV benefit to increase saliency of attended speech for older adults with hearing loss. Older adults and those with hearing loss have greater difficulty in noisy environments than younger adults, due in part to a reduction in available cognitive resources. When older listeners are in a challenging environment, their reduced cognitive resources (i.e., working memory and inhibitory control) can result in increased listening effort to maintain speech understanding performance. Both younger and older listeners were tested in this study to determine if the familiar voice benefit varies with listener age under various listening conditions.

Study 1 examined whether a FV improves speech understanding and working memory during a dynamic speech understanding task in a real-world setting for couples of younger and older adults. Results showed that both younger and older adults exhibited a talker familiarity benefit to speech understanding performance, but performance on a test of working memory capacity did not vary as a function of talker familiarity. Study 2 examined if a FV improves speech understanding in a simulated cocktail-party environment in a lab setting by presenting multi-talker stimuli that were either monotic or dichotic. Both YNH and ONH groups exhibited a familiarity benefit in monotic and dichotic listening conditions. However, results also showed that talker familiarity benefit in the monotic conditions varied as a function of talker identification accuracy. When the talker identification was correct, speech understanding was similar when listening to a familiar masker or when both voices were unfamiliar. However, when talker identification was incorrect, listening to a familiar masker resulted in a decline in speech understanding. Study 3 examined if a FV improves performance on a measure of auditory working memory. ONH listeners with higher working memory capacity exhibited a benefit in performance when listening to a familiar vs. unfamiliar target voice. Additionally, performance on the 1-back test varied as a function of working memory capacity and inhibitory control.

Taken together, talker familiarity is a beneficial cue that both younger and older adults can utilize when listening in complex environments, such as a restaurant or a crowded gathering. Listening to a familiar voice can improve speech understanding in noise, particularly when the noise is composed of speech. However, this benefit did not impact performance on a high memory load task. Understanding the role that familiar voices may have on the allocation of cognitive resources could result in improved aural rehabilitation strategies and may ultimately facilitate improvements in partner communication in complex real-world environments.