When loud noises interrupt conversations, your brain fills in the blanks

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Noise is everywhere, but that’s OK. Your brain can still keep track of a conversation in the face of revving motorcycles, noisy cocktail parties or screaming children – in part by predicting what’s coming next and filling in any blanks.

New data suggests that these insertions are processed as if the brain had really heard the parts of the word that are missing [a phenomenon that is called perceptual restoration].

“The brain has evolved a way to overcome interruptions that happen in the real world,” says Matthew Leonard at the University of California, San Francisco.

[Researchers] played the volunteers recordings of a word that could either be “faster” or “factor”, with the middle sound replaced by noise. Data from the electrodes showed that their brains responded as if they had actually heard the missing “s” or “c” sound.

This seems to be because one region of the brain, called the inferior frontal cortex, predicts what word someone is likely to hear – and it does this two-tenths of a second before the superior temporal gyrus starts processing the sounds a person has heard.

[The study can be found here.]

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