Ecological cocktail party listening reveals the utility of extended high-frequency hearing

Brian B. Monson, J. Rock, Anneliese Schulz, Elissa Hoffman, E. Buss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A fundamental principle of neuroscience is that each species' and individual's sensory systems are tailored to meet the demands placed upon them by their environments and experiences. What has driven the upper limit of the human frequency range of hearing? The traditional view is that sensitivity to the highest frequencies (i.e., beyond 8 kHz) facilitates localization of sounds in the environment. However, this has yet to be demonstrated for naturally occurring non-speech sounds. An alternative view is that, for social species such as humans, the biological relevance of conspecific vocalizations has driven the development and retention of auditory system features. Here, we provide evidence for the latter theory. We evaluated the contribution of extended high-frequency (EHF) hearing to common ecological speech perception tasks. We found that restricting access to EHFs reduced listeners' discrimination of talker head orientation by approximately 34%. Furthermore, access to EHFs significantly improved speech recognition under listening conditions in which the target talker's head was facing the listener while co-located background talkers faced away from the listener. Our findings raise the possibility that sensitivity to the highest audio frequencies fosters communication and socialization of the human species. These findings suggest that loss of sensitivity to the highest frequencies may lead to deficits in speech perception. Such EHF hearing loss typically goes undiagnosed, but is widespread among the middle-aged population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107773
JournalHearing Research
StatePublished - Sep 15 2019


  • Cocktail party problem
  • High frequency hearing
  • Speech perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems

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