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Year : 2010  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 49  |  Page : 263-269
When cognition kicks in: Working memory and speech understanding in noise

1 Linnaeus Centre Head, The Swedish Institute for Disability Research, Snekkersten, Denmark; Department of Behavioral Sciences and Learning, Snekkersten, Denmark
2 Linnaeus Centre Head, The Swedish Institute for Disability Research, Snekkersten, Denmark; Department of Behavioral Sciences and Learning, Snekkersten, Denmark; Oticon A/S, Research Centre Eriksholm, Snekkersten, Denmark
3 Linnaeus Centre Head, The Swedish Institute for Disability Research, Snekkersten, Denmark; Department of Behavioral Sciences and Learning, Snekkersten, Denmark; Audiology/ENT & EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam

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Date of Web Publication21-Sep-2010

Perceptual load and cognitive load can be separately manipulated and dissociated in their effects on speech understanding in noise. The Ease of Language Understanding model assumes a theoretical position where perceptual task characteristics interact with the individual's implicit capacities to extract the phonological elements of speech. Phonological precision and speed of lexical access are important determinants for listening in adverse conditions. If there are mismatches between the phonological elements perceived and phonological representations in long-term memory, explicit working memory (WM)-related capacities will be continually invoked to reconstruct and infer the contents of the ongoing discourse. Whether this induces a high cognitive load or not will in turn depend on the individual's storage and processing capacities in WM. Data suggest that modulated noise maskers may serve as triggers for speech maskers and therefore induce a WM, explicit mode of processing. Individuals with high WM capacity benefit more than low WM-capacity individuals from fast amplitude compression at low or negative input speech-to-noise ratios. The general conclusion is that there is an overarching interaction between the focal purpose of processing in the primary listening task and the extent to which a secondary, distracting task taps into these processes.

Keywords:  Competing noise, ease of language understanding, masking, speech understanding, working memory

How to cite this article:
Rönnberg J, Rudner M, Lunner T, Zekveld AA. When cognition kicks in: Working memory and speech understanding in noise. Noise Health 2010;12:263-9

How to cite this URL:
Rönnberg J, Rudner M, Lunner T, Zekveld AA. When cognition kicks in: Working memory and speech understanding in noise. Noise Health [serial online] 2010 [cited 2018 Dec 15];12:263-9. Available from: http://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2010/12/49/263/70505

  Introduction Top

In the history of audiology and speech communication research, the possibility that cognitive factors influence speech intelligibility in adverse listening conditions has been recognized relatively late. [1],[2] This may in part be due to the fact that auditory scientists and audiologists have emphasized the possibility of predicting speech understanding in complex listening situations using relatively simple kinds of auditory or linguistic test stimuli and without considering the full impact of contributions from higher-order cognitive factors. [3],[4] Also, cognitive scientists have not considered the sensory influence on cognitive function in sufficient detail. [5],[6] Recognition of both these kinds of interaction and subsequent consequences for information processing has led to the development of a new interdisciplinary area called cognitive hearing science.[1],[7]

A general conclusion of the recent advances in cognitive hearing science is that the important features of future modeling must include the interplay between bottom-up and top-down processing, or in other terms, the interaction between automatic/implicit and deliberate/explicit kinds of information processing. [8],[9],[10] For example, recent research by our group demonstrates that explicit, top-down mechanisms that depend on working memory (WM) capacity may determine successful adaptation to signal processing algorithms, such as wide-range dynamic compression, in assistive technology. [11],[12],[13]

  Noise Modulation Top

Lyxell and Rönnberg [14] obtained interesting results in an early study on visual speechreading. Participants were presented with a video-image of the speakers' face who pronounced words or sentences in different kinds of background conditions (in quiet, stationary white noise, or meaningful noise - with the same speaker reading from a newspaper article about the assassination of Olof Palme). The auditory target speech signal was not presented. WM capacity was assessed by the reading span test that measures ongoing storage and processing functions of WM. [15],[16] The two noise conditions did not affect visual speechreading performance per se. Nevertheless, WM capacity was correlated with speechreading, but only for the meaningful noise mask. For the white noise condition, there was no correlation between visual speechreading and reading span performance. The type of target stimulus (i.e., words or sentences) did not affect the relation between WM and speechreading performance. The results indicated that speechreading in noise capitalizes on cognitive resources in qualitatively different ways, depending on the type of noise mask.

George et al, [17] observed similar results in a study examining the role of auditory and non-auditory factors in speech perception in stationary and modulated noise by normal hearing and hearing-impaired listeners. The results indicated that the speech reception threshold in both stationary and modulated noise of the normal hearing participants was predicted best by the text reception threshold test. [18] The text reception threshold test is a visual analog of the speech reception threshold test. [19] Participants are asked to read aloud sentences that are partly masked by a vertical bar pattern. The test adaptively measures the percentage of unmasked text required for 50% correct sentence perception. The text reception threshold is related to the speech reception threshold in normal hearing listeners. [18] For the hearing-impaired listeners included in the study of George et al,[17] the pure tone audiogram was the main predictor of speech perception in stationary noise. However, speech perception in modulated noise was related to auditory temporal acuity and the text reception threshold. Thus, generally consistent with Lyxell and Rönnberg, [14] this set of results indicates that non-auditory cognitive factors (linguistic inference-making and WM) are relevant for speech perception, specifically in fluctuating noise.

Compared to a stationary noise masker, speech perception in competing speech maskers provides a 7 dB "release of masking" for young adults without hearing impairment, [20] whereas the masking release is smaller or absent for younger or older persons with hearing impairment. [17],[21],[22],[23] Thus, hearing loss is associated with a relative inability to benefit from the relatively silent periods in the noise masker. This inability to "listen in the dips" seems to be related to a reduced perception of the information provided by the temporal fine structure of the speech signal (rapid fluctuations in amplitude over time) in the absence of envelope information (slower modulation superimposed on the fine structure). [24] The role of temporal fine structure in listening in the dips is further reflected by the fact that increasing the amount of temporal fine structure information increases the speech reception thresholds of listeners with normal hearing to a larger extent for modulated noise maskers. [25] However, the amount of masking release in fluctuating noise may in turn depend on the interaction between speech-to-noise ratio and impairment such that a hearing-impaired person needs more favorable speech-to-noise ratios before the benefit of fluctuations becomes apparent. [26]

Kramer et al, [27] furthermore showed that the "speech intelligibility in noise" factor of a self-reported hearing disability questionnaire was better predicted by speech perception in modulated noise than by speech perception in stationary noise alone. This indicates that the hearing problems experienced by persons with hearing loss are tapped by speech perception in modulated noise tests that require more cognitive capacity, which furthermore underlines the value of examining the role of these cognitive abilities in hearing difficulties.

  Amplification Algorithms and Noise Modulation Top

Another empirical illustration of the necessity of conceptualizing the interaction between auditory input characteristics and cognition was shown by Lunner and Sundewall-Thorén. [28] They manipulated the type of compression (slow/fast) in the hearing aid and the type of background noise (modulated/unmodulated). Slow compression creates quasi-linear amplification of the spoken input sound, which preserves syllable characteristics to a relatively high degree. In contrast, fast-acting compression gives nonlinear amplification which results in syllable compression and an alteration of the temporal envelope which determines the acoustical form of the speech signal, and it therefore influences the cues used during phonological processing. [29] Fast-acting compression amplification can improve, but not perfectly restore the ability to understand speech in modulated noise. [30]

Lunner and Sundewall-Thorén [28] showed that speech perception in relatively easy listening conditions (unmodulated noise and slow compression) was predicted by hearing threshold levels. However, in more demanding and ecologically more relevant conditions (modulated noise and fast compression), WM functions (i.e., letter monitoring performance) [31] played a prominent role in the prediction of speech-in-noise performance. The actual performances were similar across conditions. This study thereby demonstrates that a qualitatively different kind of explicit WM processing and storage function is triggered by the demanding compared to the less demanding listening conditions. In other words, the listening demands determine how a certain speech perception performance is reached. The details remain to be worked out as regards to what constitutes a "demanding" listening situation in relation to different kinds of cognitive capacities and materials. [32],[33] The studies of Lyxell and Rönnberg [14] and George et al,[17] have in common that the involvement of cognitive capacity during speech perception was high when speech was masked by a fluctuating noise masker (i.e., either a human voice, a square-wave modulated masker, or the long-term speech spectrum noise, modulated and locked to one talker). [34] A tentative suggestion therefore is that a fluctuating noise seems to signal demands on WM storage and processing to a larger extent than a steady-state noise.

  Phonological Mismatch, Working Memory Capacity, and Aided Speech Perception in Noise Top

The studies described above thus suggest that one important role of cognition in aided speech recognition in noise is to piece together information in a speech signal available in the dips of a modulated masker. One of the reasons for a degradation of the percept may be loss of temporal fine structure. [25] A degraded percept resulting from loss of temporal fine structure can be partially compensated for by fast-acting compression, making the weaker part of the signal more audible.

In several recent studies performed by our group, we have systematically manipulated the type of signal processing used in hearing aids and examined which conditions were associated with WM capacity. The rationale behind this approach is that if interindividual differences in WM capacity are related to speech perception performance in certain conditions, apparently, these conditions induce a qualitatively different, WM-based strategy of information processing. In one study, we manipulated the experimental settings in the hearing aids of experienced users such that they differed from and "mismatched to" the original settings in the hearing aids. [35] The unfamiliar hearing aid setting created a mismatch presumably at the syllabic, phonological level (see also the section describing the ELU-model in the current paper). This mismatch caused a dependence on WM capacity, as reflected by significant correlation coefficients between speech perception performance and the reading span test. This relation was observed across combinations of slow and fast compression settings in the experimental hearing aid, with steady as well as with modulated noise. In a generalization study, in which we re-analyzed three datasets (two of which were from a Danish population), we again observed that reading span performance was related to performance in different mismatch conditions. Thus, the phonological mismatch effect due to unfamiliar hearing aid settings is stable across the two Scandinavian languages. [36]

In yet another study, we actually manipulated the participant's experience with a particular hearing aid setting. It was found that after 9 weeks of training with a slow and quasi-linear compression release setting in the hearing aid, speech perception performance with a fast, nonlinear compression setting was related to WM performance, [13] whereas this was not true with the slow setting. That is, in the former case, a phonological mismatch was induced, hence the dependence on WM capacity. This mismatch may be due to the fact that the nonlinear compression used at test alters or "distorts" the phonological representation extracted in a substantial way compared to the slow compression setting that the participants have become acclimatized to during training, hence the mismatch between training and test. The reverse was not necessarily true (i.e., for training with a fast setting and testing with a slow setting), presumably because transfer was easier from practice with a relatively more distorted percept to a less affected speech signal. [13]

  A Working Memory System for Ease of Language Understanding Top

To address issues related to speech understanding in noise more generally, the Ease of Language Understanding (ELU) model was developed [8],[9],[10] [Figure 1].
Figure 1: A working memory system for Ease of Language Understanding (ELU)[8],[9],[10]

Click here to view

It suggests one way of accounting for the role of cognition in language understanding in persons with hearing loss. The perceptual input to the model is conceptualized as multi-sensory or multi-modal linguistic information, which at a cognitive level is assumed to be Rapidly, Automatically, and Multi-modally Bound together to form Phonological streams of information (RAMBPHO, sign language is not dealt with in this paper, but see Rönnberg et al. [9] ). As long as optimum conditions prevail, the RAMBPHO function mediates rapid and implicit unlocking of the lexicon by means of matching input with stored phonological representations in long-term memory. [9]

If suboptimum conditions are at hand (e.g., due to hearing loss, suboptimal signal processing in a hearing aid, and/or noisy conditions), RAMBPHO information may fail to activate stored representations and mismatch may occur. Mismatch can also arise due to slow lexical access and less precise phonological representations in long-term memory. However, mismatch or partial mismatch can be compensated for by other levels of language (e.g., semantic information). If appropriately manipulated, semantic information may prime phonological processing and sentence comprehension. [37]

Our current knowledge is that when phonological mismatch occurs, explicit processing and storage capacity is required to infer and abstract meaning, prospectively as well as retrospectively, on the basis of incomplete new information and previous knowledge. [35],[38] In addition, it is assumed that the relative contribution of explicit and implicit functions to language understanding varies as a function of mismatch as well as talker, context and dialog-specific aspects. [10] Thus, ELU is, in general, negatively correlated to the degree of explicit involvement, and is in those instances predicted to be dependent on the storage and processing capacity with which explicit functions can be carried out.

  The Nature of Phonological Mismatch Top

According to the general description of the ELU model, several conditions may cause mismatch at different linguistic levels of analysis. [8] Here we focus on phonological mismatch. The studies referred to in the current paper, which examined the relation between speech processing algorithms and WM fall into two classes. One deals with the perceptual input that causes a mismatch with existing phonological representations in long-term memory. [28] The other deals with how perceptual learning with one kind of signal processing scheme - with subsequent modifications of phonological representations in long-term memory - can cause a mismatch with perceptual input from other signal processing schemes. [13] Both have in common that they signal a demand on explicit, WM capacity. Across studies, especially a fast-acting compression signal processing algorithm, combined with modulated noise, seems to provoke the highest dependence on WM capacity. [13],[36] We propose that high WM capacity allows hearing-impaired listeners to benefit from masking release in modulated noise in a similar way as experienced by persons with normal hearing thresholds, by allowing them to piece together the information partially restored by fast-acting compression release. WM capacity would thereby partially compensate for loss of sensitivity to temporal fine structure. [25]

In even further detail, Lunner et al, [12] suggested that the benefit from a fast amplitude compression system increases as input speech-to-noise ratio becomes more negative. This is because long-term output speech-to-noise ratios from the hearing aid are increased relative to the input speech-to-noise ratio. [39] Then, by implication, if persons with high WM capacity demonstrate speech reception thresholds at lower or more negative input speech-to-noise ratios than persons with a low WM capacity, then the high capacity persons will receive an added benefit from the relatively higher output speech-to-noise ratios (cf. the speech-to-noise ratio-dependence of benefit from fluctuating maskers). [26]

According to Mattys et al, [40] the so called perceptual load as induced by stationary noise maskers leads to a reliance on acoustic features in segmentation judgments of ambiguous phrases. In contrast, cognitive load (as induced by secondary tasks such as divided attention and lexical memory tasks) strengthens the reliance on lexical and semantic knowledge (e.g., Was it "mild option" or "mile doption" I just heard?). Perceptual load would thus lead to more "mile doption" judgments and cognitive load would lead to "mild option" judgments. Their model (Mattys et al. [40] ) does not predict that acoustic/phonological mismatches increase the cognitive load, and hence result in a dependence on explicit WM resources in terms of the ELU model. On the face of it, this result does not rhyme with our phonological mismatch data. [13],[36]

However, if we conceive of our mismatch data as principally targeting phonological mismatches, then it is possible to reconcile the predictions about perceptual load described by Mattys et al, [40] and the ELU model. [8] Phonological mismatch is about the cognitive consequence of a phonological mismatch for speech understanding in noise, whereas the model of Mattys et al,[40] is about the reliance on different features for the purpose of segmentation. In the ELU model, the "bottleneck" of information processing and lexical access from long-term memory is a phonological representation (presumably at the syllabic level). [10] Phonological processing in RAMBPHO is affected by the probability of correct neural, bottom-up driven phonemic classification at an early stage in the processing of the information, how the type of hearing impairment affects this classification (i.e., effects of inner and outer hair cell damage to the classification), [37] and whether the visual information helps binding and optimizing the phonological (syllabic) percepts for unlocking the lexicon. [7]

Further to this point is the fact that the neural correlates for speech versus non-speech perception clearly differ. [41] Again, it seems that when speech is to be processed, a qualitatively different processing mode with a different neural signature occurs. Areas for phonological (syllabic) analysis differ from brain areas merely involved in sound perception. [41] Perhaps amplitude modulated noise signals speech or phonology, rather than noise, on the principle that "you can't hear speech as noise". [42] The consequence of this reasoning is that as long as an auditory stimulus resembles "speech" by the way in which it is processed by the brain, namely, as a competing source of information, it is likely that explicit WM resources will be tapped. Importantly, given sufficient WM capacity this does not necessarily imply a higher cognitive load, since "load" in our understanding is relative to the capacity of the individual. However, what can be expected is a qualitatively different compensatory strategy when the individual deploys his/her implicit and explicit resources at hand (Rönnberg, [10] [Figure 1],[Figure 2],[Figure 3], p. 73-4).

Thus, what we have articulated here is a position in-between perceptual and cognitive load-induced strategies (Mattys et al. [40] ), which emphasizes the interaction between perceptual task characteristics and (a) the individual's implicit capacities to pick up the phonological elements of speech in adverse listening conditions (via the actual ability to capitalize on temporal fine structure, the ability to multi-modally bind together the target phonological elements, and the speed with which the lexicon is accessed), as well as (b) how the implicit functions interlock and interact with the explicit WM-related capacities to synthesize and infer the actual discourse. With high quality of implicit processes (fast lexical access and precise phonological representations in long-term memory), the probability of mismatch is reduced. With lower quality of these processes (slow lexical access and less precise phonological representations), the probability of mismatch is increased, and the level of speech understanding will then be a function of the compensatory potential of explicit WM-based strategies. [10]

  The Nature of the Speech Task Top

Related to our discussion are results observed in a different line of research on the effects of distracting sounds on serial short-term memory recall. Especially, the transitions in vowels seem to be more distracting than consonant sounds when it comes to phonological similarity effects within consonant-vowel-consonant distracters. [43] Hughes et al, [43] therefore have argued in favor of a so-called "changing-state hypothesis". The essence of this hypothesis is that change (or fluctuation) is not crucially determined by whether the effects rely on speech stimuli or not. The distraction effect could well be obtained by other kinds of fluctuating sounds like tones, [44] as long as they distract the overall task of serial recall.

Thus, what seems to determine the effects, in general, is that interference is caused by similarity in the process applied to distracter or masker stimuli and not the contents per se, [45] but see Baddeley and Larsen. [46] For example, if the purpose of the task is to recall visually presented semantic information by category, recall is compromised by the semantic relatedness of the irrelevant speech distracter. However, if the instruction is to recall by serial order, the negative effect of semantic relatedness is reduced (semantic relatedness was manipulated by forward vs. reversed speech), and other acoustic/phonological distracters that affect seriation play a role instead. [45]

Translated back to the issue of phonological mismatch, amplitude modulation seems to signal speech, which thereby interferes with the processing of the phonological component, as long as the focal task is to recall or repeat (serially) the semantically unrelated words in lists such as the Hagerman lists. [28] Phonological mismatch effects - with a reliance on WM capacity - do not show as clearly with other types of natural and contextually richer sentences such as HINT. [13] The ELU model is not defined in terms of dedicated loops for information processing, but rather in terms of the phonological information that is bound together (i.e., RAMBPHO, cf. Baddeley) [47] to access the phonological lexicon. [8] In that sense, the model may accommodate general processes that affect seriation and phonology, if seriation is a constraint for efficient on-line lexical access.

To further develop the ELU model, we have to study the demands on WM in semantically interfering conditions as well, i.e., when the distracting task interferes with the focal task of semantic processing of a sentence in noise, or with semantic priming of the sentence to-be-reported. In this way, other causes for mismatch and for explicit processing may be charted more broadly.

  Ease of Language Understanding, Just Follow Conversation, and Type of Noise Top

In a study by Hygge et al,[48] using a conversation following task ("Just Follow Conversation"), ELU was measured by asking participants to individually adjust the signal-to-noise ratio such that the listener was "just able to follow and comprehend a conversation". The types of noise applied were either (a) speech-spectrum random noise, or (b) a male voice reading from another chapter of the text used for the female signal voice, or (c) the male voice played in reverse. Both normal hearing and hearing-impaired persons participated. Each masker had a similar detrimental effect on "ease" in the hearing-impaired group, whereas for the normal hearing participants, the two speech conditions were equally less distracting than the random noise masker. It was argued that the hearing-impaired participants could not effectively use the temporal variations in the speech maskers, resulting in similar speech-to-noise ratios across conditions that were all worse than those obtained by the normal hearing controls. Thus, in contrast to the hearing-impaired group, the normal hearing could effectively utilize the temporal cues, silent stops and pauses to follow the message of the signal voice better. [37],[49]

Hygge et al. had expected the forward, normal speech masker to be more distracting than the male voice played in reverse because of the interfering semantic processing it would induce. However, the lack of interfering effects of the content of the speech maskers has also been reported by others [20],[21],[50],[51] (see also the review of Bronkhorst). [52] Festen and Plomp [21] showed that the speech reception threshold is similar for speech masked by a single distracting voice and speech masked by a noise masker that was spectrally shaped to the voice and multiplied by the voice envelope.

In conclusion, it seems that despite the lack of semantic interference, the study conditions referred to above have a phonological component in common. The reason for this result may again be related to the demands of the focal task. [45],[52] There is less possibility for semantic distraction as long as the focal task is to "just follow" the conversation.

One example of a manipulation that involves a more semantic [45] or cognitive load [40] was studied by Lyxell et al. [53] They used two "Just Follow Conversation" conditions: in the active listening condition, participants were instructed to prepare for forthcoming and randomly presented questions on the content of the speech. In the other condition, participants received a passive listening instruction. In both the conditions, background babble from Kindergarten was used as noise masker. WM capacity correlated significantly with performance in the active but not in the passive condition for normal hearing participants.

This manipulation may be seen as a parallel to the task by Mattys et al,[40] where they instructed participants to maintain a set of words in memory while carrying out the segmentation judgments, and similar in spirit to the semantic category recall manipulations by Marsh et al. [45] In both the cases, cognitive or semantic load is increased, resulting in higher reliance on lexical-semantic information and WM capacity. Manipulations of cognitive load in relation to different kinds of mismatch and in different types of noise remain to be investigated for future developments of ELU.

  Conclusions Top

Perceptual load and cognitive load (cf. Mattys et al. [40] ) can be dissociated by manipulating the nature of the secondary task and by assessing the effects that they have on the reliance on acoustic versus lexical aspects of coding speech.

In terms of a general mismatch concept included in the ELU model, there is yet another dimension to be noted: if the phonological mismatch with the lexicon is sufficiently large, cognitive resources will also be brought into play. Whether this is a heavy cognitive "load" or not will in turn depend on the WM capacity of the individual. [10] This underscores the value of assessing qualitative differences in speech processing.

Modulated noise maskers may serve as triggers for speech maskers and therefore induce a WM, explicit mode of processing. The ELU model is about the interaction between the implicit capacity to pick up speech elements under adverse conditions and the explicit capacity to capitalize on those elements to re-construct what was said.

High WM capacity individuals benefit more from low or negative input speech-to-noise ratios with fast amplitude compression, but phonological precursors such as the ability to pick up temporal fine structure may also aid in reconstructing and discovering what was uttered in modulated noise (speech or speech-like).

The general point is that there is an overarching interaction between the focal purpose of processing in the primary task (e.g., repetition, serial recall vs. recall by category or by comprehension of the gist of a conversation) and the extent to which the secondary, distracting task taps into these processes.

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Correspondence Address:
Jerker Rönnberg
Department of Behavioral Sciences and Learning, Linköping University, S-581 83, Linköping, Sweden

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Source of Support: The Swedish Research Council 349-2007-8654, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.70505

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