Normal hearing is not enough to guarantee robust encoding of suprathreshold features important in everyday communication

Dorea Ruggles, Hari Bharadwaj, Barbara G. Shinn-Cunningham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

149 Scopus citations


"Normal hearing" is typically defined by threshold audibility, even though everyday communication relies on extracting key features of easily audible sound, not on sound detection. Anecdotally, many normal-hearing listeners report difficulty communicating in settings where there are competing sound sources, but the reasons for such difficulties are debated: Do these difficulties originate from deficits in cognitive processing, or differences in peripheral, sensory encoding? Here we show that listeners with clinically normal thresholds exhibit very large individual differences on a task requiring them to focus spatial selective auditory attention to understand one speech stream when there are similar, competing speech streams coming from other directions. These individual differences in selective auditory attention ability are unrelated to age, reading span (a measure of cognitive function), and minor differences in absolute hearing threshold; however, selective attention ability correlates with the ability to detect simple frequency modulation in a clearly audible tone. Importantly, we also find that selective attention performance correlates with physiological measures of how well the periodic, temporal structure of sounds above the threshold of audibility are encoded in early, subcortical portions of the auditory pathway. These results suggest that the fidelity of early sensory encoding of the temporal structure in suprathreshold sounds influences the ability to communicate in challenging settings. Tests like these may help tease apart how peripheral and central deficits contribute to communication impairments, ultimately leading to new approaches to combat the social isolation that often ensues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15516-15521
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number37
StatePublished - Sep 13 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Auditory processing disorder
  • Auditory scene analysis
  • Frequency following response
  • Individual differences
  • Informational masking


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