Investigating the Role of Working Memory in Speech-in-Noise Identification for Listeners with Normal Hearing

Christian Füllgrabe, Stuart Rosen

With the advent of cognitive hearing science, increased attention has been given to individual differences in cognitive functioning and their explanatory power in accounting for inter-listener variability in understanding speech in noise (SiN). The psychological construct that has received most interest is working memory (WM), representing the ability to simultaneously store and process information. Common lore and theoretical models assume that WM-based processes subtend speech processing in adverse perceptual conditions, such as those associated with hearing loss or background noise. Empirical evidence confirms the association between WM capacity (WMC) and SiN identification in older hearing-impaired listeners. To assess whether WMC also plays a role when listeners without hearing loss process speech in acoustically adverse conditions, we surveyed published and unpublished studies in which the Reading-Span test (a widely used measure of WMC) was administered in conjunction with a measure of SiN identification. The survey revealed little or no evidence for an association between WMC and SiN performance. We also analysed new data from 132 normal-hearing participants sampled from across the adult lifespan (18 to 91 years), for a relationship between Reading-Span scores and identification of matrix sentences in noise. Performance on both tasks declined with age, and correlated weakly even after controlling for the effects of age and audibility (r = 0.39, p ≤ 0.001, one-tailed). However, separate analyses for different age groups revealed that the correlation was only significant for middle-aged and older groups but not for the young (< 40 years) participants.