Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Perception of Speech



Nature 485, 233–236  (10 May 2012)

Selective cortical representation of attended speaker in multi-talker speech perception

Departments of Neurological Surgery and Physiology, UCSF Center for Integrative Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco, California 94143, USA

Nima Mesgarani & Edward F. Chang


Humans possess a remarkable ability to attend to a single speaker’s voice in a multi-talker background. How the auditory system manages to extract intelligible speech under such acoustically complex and adverse listening conditions is not known, and, indeed, it is not clear how attended speech is internally represented. Here, using multi-electrode surface recordings from the cortex of subjects engaged in a listening task with two simultaneous speakers, we demonstrate that population responses in non-primary human auditory cortex encode critical features of attended speech: speech spectrograms reconstructed based on cortical responses to the mixture of speakers reveal the salient spectral and temporal features of the attended speaker, as if subjects were listening to that speaker alone. A simple classifier trained solely on examples of single speakers can decode both attended words and speaker identity. We find that task performance is well predicted by a rapid increase in attention-modulated neural selectivity across both single-electrode and population-level cortical responses. These findings demonstrate that the cortical representation of speech does not merely reflect the external acoustic environment, but instead gives rise to the perceptual aspects relevant for the listener’s intended goal.

Separating out a speaker of interest from other speakers in a noisy, crowded environment is a perceptual feat that we perform routinely. The ease with which we hear under these conditions belies the intrinsic complexity of this process, known as the cocktail party problem: concurrent complex sounds, which are completely mixed upon entering the ear, are re-segregated and selected from within the auditory system. The resulting percept is that we selectively attend to the desired speaker while tuning out the others.

Although previous studies have described neural correlates of masking and selective attention to speech, fundamental questions remain unanswered regarding the precise nature of speech representation at the juncture where competing signals are resolved. In particular, when attending to a speaker within a mixture, it is unclear what key aspects (for example, spectrotemporal profile, spoken words and speaker identity) are represented in the auditory system and how they compare to representations of that speaker alone; how rapidly a selective neural representation builds up when one attends to a specific speaker; and whether breakdowns in these processes can explain distinct perceptual failures, such as the inability to hear the correct words, or follow the intended speaker.

To answer these questions, we recorded cortical activity from human subjects implanted with customized high-density multi-electrode arrays as part of their clinical work-up for epilepsy surgery. Although limited to this clinical setting, these recordings provide simultaneous high spatial and temporal resolution while sampling the population neural activity from the non-primary auditory speech cortex in the posterior superior temporal lobe. We focused our analysis on high gamma (75–150Hz) local field potentials, which have been found to correlate well with the tuning of multi-unit spike recordings. In humans, the posterior superior temporal gyrus has been heavily implicated in speech perception, and is anatomically defined as the lateral parabelt auditory cortex (including Brodmann areas 41, 42 and 22).

In summary, we demonstrate that the human auditory system restores the representation of the attended speaker while suppressing irrelevant competing speech. Speech restoration occurs at a level where neural responses still show precise phase-locking to spectrotemporal features of speech. Population responses revealed the emergent representation of speech extracted from a mixture, including the moment-by-moment allocation of attentional focus.

These results have implications for models of auditory scene analysis. In agreement with recent studies, the cortical representation of speech in the posterior temporal lobe does not merely reflect the acoustical properties of the stimulus, but instead relates strongly to the perceived aspects of speech. Although the exact mechanisms are not fully known, multiple processes in addition to attention are likely to enable this high-order auditory processing, including grouping of predictable regularities in speech acoustics, feature binding and phonemic restoration. Conversely, behavioural errors seem to result from degradation of the neural representation, a direct result of inherent sensory interference such as energetic masking and/or the allocation of attention.

In speech, the end result represented in the posterior temporal lobe appears to be unaffected by perceptually irrelevant sounds, which is ideal for subsequent linguistic and cognitive processing. Following one speaker in the presence of another can be trivial for a normal human listener, but remains a major challenge for state-of-the-art automatic speech recognition algorithms. Understanding how the brain solves this problem may inspire more efficient and generalizable solutions than current engineering approaches. It will also shed light on how these processes become impaired during ageing and in disorders of speech perception in real-world hearing conditions.

[end of paraphrase]