Minimal background noise enhances neural speech tracking: Evidence of stochastic resonance

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Minimal background noise enhances neural speech tracking: Evidence of stochastic resonance


Herrmann, B.


Neural activity in auditory cortex tracks the amplitude envelope of continuous speech, but recent work counter-intuitively suggests that neural tracking increases when speech is masked by background noise, despite reduced speech intelligibility. Noise-related amplification could indicate that stochastic resonance - the response facilitation through noise - supports neural speech tracking. However, a comprehensive account of the sensitivity of neural tracking to background noise and of the role cognitive investment is lacking. In five electroencephalography (EEG) experiments (N=109; box sexes), the current study demonstrates a generalized enhancement of neural speech tracking due to minimal background noise. Results show that a) neural speech tracking is enhanced for speech masked by background noise at very high SNRs (~30 dB SNR) where speech is highly intelligible; b) this enhancement is independent of attention; c) it generalizes across different stationary background maskers, but is strongest for 12-talker babble; and d) it is present for headphone and free-field listening, suggesting that the neural-tracking enhancement generalizes to real-life listening. The work paints a clear picture that minimal background noise enhances the neural representation of the speech envelope, suggesting that stochastic resonance contributes to neural speech tracking. The work further highlights non-linearities of neural tracking induced by background noise that make its use as a biological marker for speech processing challenging.

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