The Auditory System at the Cocktail Party

Volume 60 of the series Springer Handbook of Auditory Research pp 169-197


Human Auditory Neuroscience and the Cocktail Party Problem

  • Jonathan Z. SimonAffiliated withDepartment of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Department of Biology, Institute of Systems Research, University of Maryland Email author 

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Experimental neuroscience using human subjects, to investigate how the auditory system solves the cocktail party problem, is a young and active field. The use of traditional neurophysiological methods is very tightly constrained in human subjects, but whole-brain monitoring techniques are considerably more advanced for humans than for animals. These latter methods in particular allow routine recording of neural activity from humans while they perform complex auditory tasks that would be very difficult for animals to learn. The findings reviewed in this chapter cover investigations obtained with a variety of experimental methodologies, including electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography, electrocorticography, and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Topics covered in detail include investigations in humans of the neural basis of spatial hearing, auditory stream segregation of simple sounds, auditory stream segregation of speech, and the neural role of attention. A key conceptual advance noted is a change of interpretational focus from the specific notion of attention-based neural gain, to the general role played by attention in neural auditory scene analysis and sound segregation. Similarly, investigations have gradually changed their emphasis from explanations of how auditory representations remain faithful to the acoustics of the stimulus, to how neural processing transforms them into new representations corresponding to the percept of an auditory scene. An additional important methodological advance has been the successful transfer of linear systems theory analysis techniques commonly used in single-unit recordings to whole-brain noninvasive recordings.


Attentional gain Auditory scene analysis Binaural integration Electrocorticography Electroencephalography Functional magnetic resonance imaging Heschl’s gyrus Human auditory system Interaural level difference Interaural time difference Magnetoencephalography Maskers Planum temporale Positron emission tomography Selective attention Speech Superior temporal gyrus