Poster #: 5
Topic: Attention and distraction
Thursday, Sep 10, 2015
What did you say? I wasn’t paying attention: the impact of task-irrelevant sound processing on performance
Neuroscience, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY, United States
Listening to a friend’s voice in a noisy environment often requires you to attend to that stream of sound and selectively process it to the exclusion of others. The degree to which the ignored sounds are processed, however, is still debated. Historically, attention has been thought to preempt all but low-level processing of unattended sounds. Recent theories from vision, however, posit that unattended information may be processed only by resources ‘left-over’ once attended information has been analyzed. This suggests that the attended task may determine how and when unattended information is processed. In this study we tested the hypothesis that automatic processing of unattended sounds interacts with task demands to determine performance. To test this, we held task demands constant and manipulated working memory load for task-irrelevant sounds. No change in task performance would be consistent with the theory that task-irrelevant processing is modulated by task demands. However, we found that subjects’ performance decreased with increasing working memory load for task-irrelevant sounds. This suggests that automatic processing of unattended sound streams is not preempted by attention and instead competes with task demands for cognitive resources, leading to lower performance in the primary task.