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Attention tunes the mind's ear

Brain activity shows how one voice pattern stands out from the crowd

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4:28pm, April 18, 2012

The brain’s power to focus can make a single voice seem like the only sound in a room full of chatter, a new study shows. The results help explain how people can pick out a speaker from a jumbled stream of incoming sounds.

A deeper understanding of this feat could help scientists better treat people who can’t sort out sound signals effectively, an ability that can decline with age.

“I think this is a truly outstanding study, which has deep implications for the way we think about the auditory brain,” says auditory neuroscientist Christophe Micheyl of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the new research.

For the project, engineer Nima Mesgarani and neurosurgeon Edward Chang, both of the University of California, San Francisco, studied what happens in the brains of people who are trying to follow one of two talkers, a scenario known to scientists as the cocktail party problem.

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