How Your Brain Can Understand One Voice in a Crowded Room

Feb 08, 2022

It’s a situation we have all been in many times before: a crowded, noisy room where we are trying to listen to just one person talking. Perhaps you have experienced this at a family party, or maybe you find yourself in this situation fairly frequently at a busy restaurant. Whatever the specific situation may be, you likely found that you were able to tune out the other noises and voices in order to focus on just one speaker. While we have all experienced this situation, few of us know how it actually works. Recent research has revealed more about this process.
Edmund Lalor, Ph.D., associate professor of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has focused his research on how the brain processes stimuli like speech, language, and music. He recently conducted new research on how the brain is able to wean out or ignore other noises and focus on a single speaker in a busy environment.
Dr. Lalor and his team found that the acoustics of the attended speaker, or the one you are paying attention to, and the unattended speaker, or the one you are ignoring, are processed in very similar ways. The difference is the next step the brain takes in processing the sounds.
In the study, participants listened to two stories simultaneously and were asked to focus their attention on only one speaker. Using EEG brainwave recordings, the researchers were able to see how the brain processed the sounds. They found that the story participants were asked to pay attention to was converted into linguistic units called phonemes. The unattended story was not. Phonemes are units of sound that can distinguish one word from another. Converting sound into phonemes is the first step in understanding the story. In short, the brain heard both stories but worked to understand only one of them.
The new research conducted by Dr. Lalor and his associates is not only fascinating but also useful. This type of research is critical for developing hearing technology and assistive devices (like hearing aids) that can help people with hearing loss not only hear sounds better, but better understand the sounds they hear.
One common complaint among people with hearing aids is that they can hear noises and voices better, but because all of the noises are amplified, it is more difficult to focus on a single speaker. The study conducted by Dr. Lalor and his team helps us better understand how the brain works to focus on a single voice in a crowded room. This information can help hearing aid manufacturers and technology developers improve hearing aids and other assistive technologies.
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Lalor’s recent research, or if you would like more information about how hearing aids can help you hear better in various situations, we invite you to contact our hearing practice today. We are happy to assist you.