Contextual cues can be used to improve speech recognition, especially for people with hearing impairment. However, previous work has suggested that when the auditory signal is degraded, context might be used more slowly than when the signal is clear. This potentially puts the hearing-impaired listener in a dilemma of continuing to process the last sentence when the next sentence has already begun. This study measured the time course of the benefit of context using pupillary responses to high- and low-context sentences that were followed by silence or various auditory distractors (babble noise, ignored digits, or attended digits). Participants were listeners with cochlear implants or normal hearing using a 12-channel noise vocoder. Context-related differences in pupil dilation were greater for normal hearing than for cochlear implant listeners, even when scaled for differences in pupil reactivity. The benefit of context was systematically reduced for both groups by the presence of the later-occurring sounds, including virtually complete negation when sentences were followed by another attended utterance. These results challenge how we interpret the benefit of context in experiments that present just one utterance at a time. If a listener uses context to “repair” part of a sentence, and later-occurring auditory stimuli interfere with that repair process, the benefit of context might not survive outside the idealized laboratory or clinical environment. Elevated listening effort in hearing-impaired listeners might therefore result not just from poor auditory encoding but also inefficient use of context and prolonged processing of misperceived utterances competing with perception of incoming speech.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was funded by NIH-NIDCD 5R03DC014309 (to M. W.).
- cochlear implants
- listening effort
- speech perception