Effortful Listening: The Processing of Degraded Speech Depends Critically on Attention
The conditions of everyday life are such that people often hear speech that has been degraded (e.g., by background noise or electronic transmission) or when they are distracted by other tasks. However, it remains unclear what role attention plays in processing speech that is difficult to understand. In the current study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the degree to which spoken sentences were processed under distraction, and whether this depended on the acoustic quality (intelligibility) of the speech. On every trial, adult human participants attended to one of three simultaneously presented stimuli: a sentence (at one of four acoustic clarity levels), an auditory distracter, or a visual distracter. A postscan recognition test showed that clear speech was processed even when not attended, but that attention greatly enhanced the processing of degraded speech. Furthermore, speech-sensitive cortex could be parcellated according to how speech-evoked responses were modulated by attention. Responses in auditory cortex and areas along the superior temporal sulcus (STS) took the same form regardless of attention, although responses to distorted speech in portions of both posterior and anterior STS were enhanced under directed attention. In contrast, frontal regions, including left inferior frontal gyrus, were only engaged when listeners were attending to speech and these regions exhibited elevated responses to degraded, compared with clear, speech. We suggest this response is a neural marker of effortful listening. Together, our results suggest that attention enhances the processing of degraded speech by engaging higher-order mechanisms that modulate perceptual auditory processing.