The effect of distraction on change detection in crowded acoustic scenes

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In this series of behavioural experiments we investigated the effect of distraction on the maintenance of acoustic scene information in short-term memory. Stimuli are artificial acoustic ‘scenes’ composed of several (up to twelve) concurrent tone-pip streams (‘sources’). A gap (1000 ms) is inserted partway through the ‘scene’; Changes in the form of an appearance of a new source or disappearance of an existing source, occur after the gap in 50% of the trials. Listeners were instructed to monitor the unfolding ‘soundscapes’ for these events. Distraction was measured by presenting distractor stimuli during the gap. Experiments 1 and 2 used a dual task design where listeners were required to perform a task with varying attentional demands (‘High Demand’ vs. ‘Low Demand’) on brief auditory (Experiment 1a) or visual (Experiment 1b) signals presented during the gap. Experiments 2 and 3 required participants to ignore distractor sounds and focus on the change detection task. Our results demonstrate that the maintenance of scene information in short-term memory is influenced by the availability of attentional and/or processing resources during the gap, and that this dependence appears to be modality specific. We also show that these processes are susceptible to bottom up driven distraction even in situations when the distractors are not novel, but occur on each trial. Change detection performance is systematically linked with the, independently determined, perceptual salience of the distractor sound. The findings also demonstrate that the present task may be a useful objective means for determining relative perceptual salience.

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