Missing a Trick: Auditory Load Modulates Conscious Awareness in Audition

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In the visual domain there is considerable evidence supporting the Load Theory of Attention and Cognitive Control, which holds that conscious perception of background stimuli depends on the level of perceptual load involved in a primary task. However, literature on the applicability of this theory to the auditory domain is limited and, in many cases, inconsistent. Here we present a novel “auditory search task” that allows systematic investigation of the impact of auditory load on auditory conscious perception. An array of simultaneous, spatially separated sounds was presented to participants. On half the trials, a critical stimulus was presented concurrently with the array. Participants were asked to detect which of 2 possible targets was present in the array (primary task), and whether the critical stimulus was present or absent (secondary task). Increasing the auditory load of the primary task (raising the number of sounds in the array) consistently reduced the ability to detect the critical stimulus. This indicates that, at least in certain situations, load theory applies in the auditory domain. The implications of this finding are discussed both with respect to our understanding of typical audition and for populations with altered auditory processing.

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