Low-level information and high-level perception: The case of speech in noise

Mor Nahum, Israel Nelken, Merav Ahissar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Auditory information is processed in a fine-to-crude hierarchical scheme, from low-level acoustic information to high-level abstract representations, such as phonological labels. We now ask whether fine acoustic information, which is not retained at high levels, can still be used to extract speech from noise. Previous theories suggested either full availability of low-level information or availability that is limited by task difficulty. We propose a third alternative, based on the Reverse Hierarchy Theory (RHT), originally derived to describe the relations between the processing hierarchy and visual perception. RHT asserts that only the higher levels of the hierarchy are immediately available for perception. Direct access to low-level information requires specific conditions, and can be achieved only at the cost of concurrent comprehension. We tested the predictions of these three views in a series of experiments in which we measured the benefits from utilizing low-level binaural information for speech perception, and compared it to that predicted from a model of the early auditory system. Only auditory RHT could account for the full pattern of the results, suggesting that similar defaults and tradeoffs underlie the relations between hierarchical processing and perception in the visual and auditory modalities.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere126
Pages (from-to)978-991
Number of pages14
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2008


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