Informational Masking Effects of Similarity and Uncertainty on Early and Late Stages of Auditory Cortical Processing

Christopher E. Niemczak, Kathy R. Vander Werff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Purpose: Understanding speech in a background of other people talking is a difficult listening situation for hearing-impaired individuals, and even for those with normal hearing. Speech-on-speech masking is known to contribute to increased perceptual difficulty over nonspeech background noise because of informational masking provided over and above the effects of energetic masking. While informational masking research has identified factors of similarity and uncertainty between target and masker that contribute to reduced behavioral performance in speech background noise, critical gaps in knowledge including the underlying neural-perceptual processes remain. By systematically manipulating aspects of acoustic similarity and uncertainty in the same auditory paradigm, the current study examined the time course and objectively quantified these informational masking effects at both early and late stages of auditory processing using auditory evoked potentials (AEPs). Method: Thirty participants were included in a cross-sectional repeated measures design. Target-masker similarity was manipulated by varying the linguistic/phonetic similarity (i.e., language) of the talkers in the background. Specifically, four levels representing hypothesized increasing levels of informational masking were implemented: (1) no masker (quiet); (2) Mandarin; (3) Dutch; and (4) English. Stimulus uncertainty was manipulated by task complexity, specifically presentation of target-to-target interval (TTI) in the auditory evoked paradigm. Participants had to discriminate between English word stimuli (/bæt/ and /pæt/) presented in an oddball paradigm under each masker condition pressing buttons to either the target or standard stimulus. Responses were recorded simultaneously for P1-N1-P2 (standard waveform) and P3 (target waveform). This design allowed for simultaneous recording of multiple AEP peaks, as well as accuracy, reaction time, and d' behavioral discrimination to button press responses. Results: Several trends in AEP components were consistent with effects of increasing linguistic/phonetic similarity and stimulus uncertainty. All babble maskers significantly affected outcomes compared to quiet. In addition, the native language English masker had the largest effect on outcomes in the AEP paradigm, including reduced P3 amplitude and area, as well as decreased accuracy and d' behavioral discrimination to target word responses. AEP outcomes for the Mandarin and Dutch maskers, however, were not significantly different across any measured component. Latency outcomes for both N1 and P3 also supported an effect of stimulus uncertainty, consistent with increased processing time related to greater task complexity. An unanticipated result was the absence of the interaction of linguistic/phonetic similarity and stimulus uncertainty. Conclusions: Observable effects of both similarity and uncertainty were evidenced at a level of the P3 more than the earlier N1 level of auditory cortical processing suggesting that higher-level active auditory processing may be more sensitive to informational masking deficits. The lack of significant interaction between similarity and uncertainty at either level of processing suggests that these informational masking factors operated independently. Speech babble maskers across languages altered AEP component measures, behavioral detection, and reaction time. Specifically, this occurred when the babble was in the native/same language as the target, while the effects of foreign language maskers did not differ. The objective results from this study provide a foundation for further investigation of how the linguistic content of target and masker and task difficulty contribute to difficulty understanding speech-in-noise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1006-1023
Number of pages18
JournalEar and hearing
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021


  • Auditory electrophysiology
  • Auditory neuroscience
  • Cortical auditory processing
  • Informational masking
  • P1-N1-P2
  • P300
  • Similarity and uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Speech and Hearing


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