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Feeling absorbed in a spoken story despite moderate speech masking

Comprehension of speech masked by background sound (e.g., in a lively restaurant) requires lots of cognitive processing (e.g., attention), which makes listening effortful. Research in hearing has focused on such challenging listening experiences, in part because they are thought to contribute to social withdrawal in older people with hearing impairment. Positive listening experiences, such as enjoyment and feeling absorbed in what a person tells, are less studied despite their potential importance in motivating effortful listening. How are positive listening experiences affected by listening effort induced by speech masked by background sound?

The Research

In several behavioral experiments, younger normal-hearing adults (aged 18–37 years) listened to engaging spoken stories with broad appeal under different degrees of acoustic masking by added background cafeteria babble. They rated how much they were absorbed by the stories (e.g., identifying with characters; losing a sense of time) and how effortful listening was. We also investigated whether prior expertise and knowledge with a story's theme affects story absorption under acoustic masking.

The Findings

Story absorption was unaffected by speech masking compared to the story presented clearly. In contrast, rated effort during story listening increased with higher levels of background sound (Figure on the top). Our results  indicate that under the masking conditions used here, in which intelligibility was verified to be high, listening to speech is still rewarding, despite measurable effort. We further observed that prior knowledge about a theme covered by story that is presented in background sound  increases story absorption and reduces listening effort (Figure on the bottom).

Next Steps

Future research is required to understand how older people with or without hearing loss experience spoken stories under masked conditions. Does listening effort interfere with story absorption in this population? This work will help to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the listening experience of people in their everyday lives. Future work will further elucidate the neural mechanisms that are involved when individuals listening to spoken stories under varying degrees of acoustic masking.

Publication October 2020
Link still missing

Research Support

BrainsCAN, CRC


Björn Herrmann

Ingrid S. Johnsrude

Key Points

Listening to a spoken story that is masked by moderate background sound is still rewarding, despite listening effort. Having prior thematic knowledge makes listening more rewarding and less effortful.

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