The auditory system constantly monitors the environment to protect us from harmful events such as collisions with approaching objects. Auditory looming bias is an astoundingly fast perceptual bias favoring approaching compared to receding auditory motion and was demonstrated behaviorally even in infants of four months in age. The role of learning in developing this perceptual bias and its underlying mechanisms are yet to be investigated. Supervised learning and statistical learning are the two distinct mechanisms enabling neural plasticity. In the auditory system, statistical learning refers to the implicit ability to extract and represent regularities, such as frequently occurring sound patterns or frequent acoustic transitions, with or without attention while supervised learning refers to the ability to attentively encode auditory events based on explicit feedback. It is currently unclear how these two mechanisms are involved in learning auditory spatial cues at different stages of life. While newborns already possess basic skills of spatial hearing, adults are still able to adapt to changing circumstances such as modifications of spectral-shape cues. Spectral-shape cues are naturally induced when the complex geometry especially of the human pinna shapes the spectrum of an incoming sound depending on its source location. Auditory stimuli lacking familiarized spectral-shape cues are often perceived to originate from inside the head instead of perceiving them as naturally external sound sources. Changes in the salience or familiarity of spectral-shape cues can thus be used to elicit auditory looming bias. The importance of spectral-shape cues for both auditory looming bias and auditory plasticity makes it ideal for studying them together.
In Born2Hear, we combine auditory psychophysics and neurophysiological measures in order to 1) identify auditory cognitive subsystems underlying auditory looming bias, 2) investigate principle cortical mechanisms for statistical and supervised learning of auditory spatial cues, and 3) reveal cognitive and neural mechanisms of auditory plasticity across the human lifespan. These general research questions will be addressed within three studies. Study 1 investigates the differences in the bottom-up processing of different spatial cues and the top-down attention effects on auditory looming bias by analyzing functional interactions between brain regions in young adults and then test in newborns whether these functional interactions are innate. Study 2 investigates the cognitive and neural mechanisms of supervised learning of spectral-shape cues in young and older adults based on an individualized perceptual training on sound source localization. Study 3 focuses on the cognitive and neural mechanisms of statistical learning of spectral-shape cues in infants as well as young and older adults.
Project investigator (PI): Robert Baumgartner
Project partner / Co-PI: Brigitta Tóth, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology, Research Centre for Natural Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary
Duration: April 2020 - September 2025
Supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF, I 4294-B) and NKFIH.