News

BSA Basic Auditory Science Meeting

2nd September 2018

I’m on my way to The BSA Basic Auditory Science Meeting 2018 in Newcastle. This is my first BSA meeting since I returned to the UK. I’m looking forward to catching up with old colleagues and presenting a talk on my new work: ‘Normal’ hearing thresholds and figure-ground perception explain significant variability in speech-in-noise performance.


Familiar voices are more intelligible, even if they are not recognized as familiar

16th August 2018

Our paper in Psych Science is now available online! In this experiment, we were interested in why speech is more intelligible when it is spoken by familiar than unfamiliar people (see Johnsrude et al., 2013). In other words, what characteristics of someone’s voice do we rely on to better understand speech spoken by familiar people? We also asked whether these characteristics the same ones as those we use to recognise someone from their voice (for example, recognising that the person speaking to you on the phone is your mother).

We recruited pairs of friends who had known each other for longer than 6 months. Each participant heard sentences spoken by their friend and sentences spoken by the friends of other participants, who they did not know. We manipulated the recorded sentences, to simulate changes in vocal tract length (which determines the formants of speech) and/or voice pitch (which are determined by the frequencies). Large changes in voice pitch reduced participants’ ability to recognise their friend’s voice and reduced the intelligibility of familiar than unfamiliar voices, but did not conpletely eliminate the ability to perform either task (i.e., participants could still recognise the pitch-manipulated voice as familiar and they gained a small intelligibility benefit from that voice). By contrast, large changes in vocal tract length reduced the intelligibility of familiar voices, but completely eliminated the ability to recognise a friend’s voice as familiar. We found a significant interaction between voice manipulation condition (i.e., manipulations to voice pitch or vocal tract length) and task (i.e., recognition or intelligibility task), confirming that acoustic properties of a voice contribute differently to the ability to recognise a familiar person from their voice and the ability to understand the words that a familiar person is speaking. Moreover, most participants who were unable to recognise their friend’s voice as familiar when it was manipulated still received a speech intelligibility benefit from this same voice (i.e., participants were better at reporting words in the manipulated familiar voice than the same words in an unfamilar voice, who the participant had never met). These results demonstrate an interesting dissociation between the ability to recognise someone from their voice and the ability to understand the words that someone is speaking, suggesting that we use familiar-voice information differently in different contexts.

If you’d like to read more about this research, here’s a link to the paper:

Holmes, E., Domingo, Y., & Johnsrude (2018). Familiar voices are more intelligible, even if they are not recognized as familiar. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0956797618779083 [Epub ahead of print]


RSA 2018

22nd May 2018

I’m on my way home from the 2nd Cambridge Representational Similarity Analysis and Advanced Computational Methods Workshop and it’s been a fantastic two days. Alex Wooglar gave a great talk on teasing apart hypotheses of attention using RSA for MEG, and she showed a novel Granger causality approach to RSA. I also enjoyed Cai Wingfield’s talk, where he described some studies combining automatic speech recognition approaches with M/EEG data recorded while participants listened to spoken words (for more information, see their paper). Johan Carlin’s talk was also very insightful, showing how differences in mean activity can influence the structure of multi-dimensional scaling output in surprising ways. Some interesting discussion followed about whether we can and should try to tease apart differences in ‘patterns’ of activity from differences in mean activity.


Newcastle visit

15th May 2018

I’ll be heading up to Newcastle tomorrow for a joint meeting of the Phonetics & Phonology and Auditory groups. I’m looking forward to talking about my new experiment (“Developing auditory figure ground tasks to better explain variation in speech-in-noise performance”) and to lots of interesting discussions about speech and language.


New paper accepted in Psych Science

5th May 2018

One of our papers on voice familiarity has recently been accepted in Psychological Science. In this paper, we show that familiar-voice information is used differently in different contexts—depending on whether the goal is to recognise someone from their voice or to understand the words that person is saying. I’ll post more details here when the paper goes live…


Preparing attention improves speech intelligibility

27th April 2018

Our new paper in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics is now available online. In this paper, we show that preparing attention for an upcoming talker improves speech intelligibility, with greater benefits when we have longer time to prepare. This finding supports a mechanism by which partially preparing attention improves performance, but performance does not peak until we are in a fully prepared state.

In this experiment, we presented an visual cue that instructed participants to attend to a talker who was at a target location (left/right) or who was of a target gender (male/female). We varied the cue-target interval between the time at which the visual cue was revealed and the time at which the target talker and two other distracting talkers started to speak. Response times for reporting words spoken by the target talker became significantly shorter as the duration of the cue-target interval increased from 0 to 2 seconds. Most previous experiments investigating endogenous visual and/or auditory attention have not tested cue-target intervals as long as 2 seconds, yet we found a significant improvement in performance between cue-target intervals of 1 and 2 seconds. Thus, our findings suggest that future experiments should include intervals up to and beyond 2 seconds to maximise benefits of advance cueing on task performance.

If you want to read more about the experiment, here’s the paper:

Holmes, E., Kitterick, P. T. & Summerfield, A. Q. (2018). Cueing listeners to attend to a target talker progressively improves word report as the duration of the cue-target interval lengthens to 2000 ms. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. [Epub ahead of print]


Talk at Royal Holloway this week

19th February 2018

On Wednesday (21st February), I’ll be visiting Royal Holloway and will be giving a talk on our recent work on familiar voices. If you’re around, come along to find out (1) how being familiar with someone’s voice helps you to better understand what they’re saying, (2) how long it takes to become familiar with a new voice, and (3) how patterns of brain activity elicited by a voice depend on its familiarity.


Semantic context reduces listening effort for hearing-aid users

17th February 2018

Our new paper has just been published online in the International Journal of Audiology. The paper arose from a collaboration with the National Centre of Audiology at Western University, with Susan Scollie and Paula Folkeard.

People with hearing impairment are known to find listening to speech particularly difficult and effortful when reverberant noise is present. Here, we measured speech intelligibility and subjective ratings of listening effort when people with hearing impairment listened to speech in the presence of reverberant cafeteria noise. When participants listened with a hearing-aid setting designed for reverberant environments, they reported more words correctly and reported lower listening effort than when they used a standard omnidirectional hearing-aid setting. Participants received a greater improvement in speech inteligibility, and similar reduction in listening effort, when they listened to sentences preceeded by a same-topic than different-topic sentence.

Semantic context and hearing-aid setting had additive effects on speech intelligibility and listening effort, demonstrating that the benefit of semantic context can extend above and beyond the improvement gained from changing hearing-aid settings. These results highlight the enormous potential of cognitive factors for improving speech intelligibility and reducing perceived listening effort in noisy acoustic environments.

You can read the paper here:

Holmes, E., Folkeard, P., Johnsrude, I. S., & Scollie, S. (2018). Semantic context reduces sentence-by-sentence listening effort for listeners with hearing impairment. International Journal of Audiology.


ARO meeting

8th February 2018

I’m on my way to the 41st ARO MidWinter meeting and half the plane is filled with auditory researchers! Alex Billig and I organised a Young Investigator Symposium on ‘Non-acoustic influences on speech perception in normal and impaired hearing’, which will take place on Tuesday. The symposium highlights the wide variety of factors that influence speech perception and will feature talks by Tessa Bent, Ross Maddox, Alex Billig, Elin Roverud, Stefanie Kuchinsky, Pranesh Bhargava, Malte Wöstmann, and myself. You can find the abstract book here: ARO 2018 MidWinter Meeting Abstracts


Two new papers accepted

18th January 2018

A great start to the new year—2 papers accepted within the past week! Watch this space for details…


Moved to UCL

2nd January 2018

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Recently, I made the transatlantic move from London Ontario to London England to start a new position at UCL. I’ll be based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging (known locally as the FIL) at 12 Queen Square. I’m looking forward to making use of the 3 fMRI scanners and the MEG scanner here.


Psychonomics meeting

14th November 2017

I’ve just got back from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society. It was my first time at Psychonomics and I presented some of my new work on familiar voices. I’m very grateful to have received a Women in Cognitive Science Travel and Networking Award to attend.

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New paper out in JARO

5th October 2017

Our new paper has just been published online in JARO. The paper describes two experiments that investigated whether envelope following responses (EFRs) are affected by attention.

We found that EFRs were modulated by frequency-specific attention when we used stimuli with lower amplitude modulation rates (93–109 Hz), but not when we used stimuli with higher amplitude modulation rates (217–233 Hz). The results demonstrate that amplitude modulation rate can dramatically affect the conclusions of EFR studies—implying that different neuronal populations contribute to EFRs at these lower and higher rates.

The paper can be viewed online here. The code I wrote to calculate Phase Coherence is available on my Github page in MATLAB and Python.


Auditory Cortex meeting

8th September 2017

Tomorrow, I’ll be flying out to the International Conference on Auditory Cortex. I’m looking forward to presenting my latest fMRI work on ‘How are familiar voices represented in auditory cortex?’, catching up with colleagues, and enjoying the beautiful scenery in Banff!


Speech recording videos

21st August 2017

Yesterday, I shared some code that I wrote to generate videos, which I have used to standardise speech recordings. When making sentence recordings, these videos have been helpful in ensuring that word onsets are aligned between different talkers, who might otherwise speak at very different speeds. The code is quite flexible and has been used to generate sentence videos in 4 different languages for 10 research projects in the lab. You can find the code on my Github profile.


Sharing code

4th August 2017

I’ve recently started using Github and have created a profile to share some of my code. For example, I’ve made available the code I wrote to calculate Phase Coherence and an analysis method I developed for estimating the dissimilarity in source locations between two conditions (termed ‘Source Dissimilarity Index‘). I have programmed both of these analyses in MATLAB and Python.

You can view my Github profile here. I would be interested to hear from you if you’re using the code or have found it useful.


New paper on attention in hearing-impaired children

22nd May 2017

Another paper from my PhD has recently been published. The paper provides evidence that children with sensorineural hearing loss have a reduced ability to direct selective attention to a talker of interest compared to children of a similar age who have normal hearing.

People with hearing impairment often experience particular difficulty when listening to speech in the presence of other competing speech. Since auditory attention is crucial for separating simultaneous speech, we tested the hypothesis that auditory attention is atypical in hearing-impaired children.

Participants were cued to attend to a talker (defined by their location or gender) who spoke in a mixture of three talkers. To isolate attentional processing from peripheral acoustic processing, we measured electro-encephalography (EEG) when participants prepared their attention for an upcoming talker. Hearing-impaired children showed a reduced ability to prepare spatial attention compared to normally-hearing children. Preparatory EEG activity was not restored when the hearing-impaired children listened using their acoustic hearing aids. These findings demonstrate that sensorineural hearing loss has consequences for central processing, providing a shift in thinking from the traditional view of hearing loss as purely a peripheral phenomenon.

The paper can be accessed here:

Holmes, E., Kitterick, P. T. & Summerfield, A. Q. (2017). Peripheral hearing loss reduces the ability of children to direct selective attention during multi-talker listening. Hearing Research, 350, 160–172. doi:10.1016/j.heares.2017.05.005


Pint of Science

11th May 2017

On Monday, I’ll be giving a talk at the London Ontario Pint of Science festival. The Pint of Science festival takes place every year at locations all around the world, but this is the first year that the festival’s being held in London Ontario. The idea is to convey the latest scientific research to the public in an interesting and accessible way. The festival comprises a series of talks and discussions, which are held in local pubs. You can attend any of the events for free by registering on the website: https://www.pintofscience.ca/london-2017. My talk, “Can you hear me?”, is part of the Beautiful Minds session on May 15th.


Paper accepted in The Journal of Neuroscience

21st April 2017

Björn Herrmann and I recently received notification that our paper—entitled “Revisiting the contribution of auditory cortex to frequency-following responses”—has been accepted for publication in The Journal of Neuroscience. The paper highlights accumulating evidence that auditory cortex contributes to FFRs at frequencies traditionally thought to predominantly reflect brainstem sources. This idea is becoming increasingly important, because researchers have often assumed that differences in FFRs at these frequencies must reflect differences in brainstem processing. Nevertheless, the relative magnitudes of cortical and brainstem contributions to FFRs at different frequencies remain unclear. In the paper, we suggest avenues for future research that could help to improve understanding of the neural generators of FFRs and of brainstem processing.

Holmes, E., & Herrmann, B. (2017). Revisiting the contribution of auditory cortex to frequency-following responses. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(21), 5218–5220.


Two talks at ARO meeting

16th February 2017

The Association for Research in Otolaryngology (ARO) Mid-Winter meeting was held in Baltimore MD this year. As usual, the conference was packed with interesting research and it was difficult to see everything in the time available! Nevertheless, I always enjoy ARO for finding out about the latest research and having great discussions.

This year, I gave two talks and co-moderated a podium session, so the conference was even busier than usual! The Speech Perception session that I was moderating—on the first afternoon of the conference—included lots of great talks. In the same session, I talked about some of my recent work on the voice cues that enable us to understand and recognise speech spoken by familiar talkers (such as a good friend or partner).

A few days later, I gave a talk in the Brainstem session. I presented the results of my recent experiment showing that attending to sounds of particular frequencies affects envelope following responses (EFRs) at lower (93–109 Hz) but not higher (217–233 Hz) frequencies. There was an excellent turnout and I got lots of great feedback.


Collaborative Research Funding

3rd February 2017

I’ve recently had the opportunity to be involved in the funding process for the Brain and Mind Institute Postdoctoral Collaborative Research Grants. These grants are a new initiative by the Brain and Mind Institute to promote collaboration between different labs and give postdocs the opportunity to carry out independent research projects. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the funding process through from start to finish and gain insight into the entire process. I formed a committee to review the applications and was also involved in reviewing the applications myself. Overall, it was a very interesting and rewarding experience.


Listen up: Our brains prepare to ‘tune in’ to a voice of interest

6th December 2016

A lay summary of my 2016 Hearing Research paper was published yesterday on the Atlas of Science website, which aims to promote the dissemination of recent scientific papers to a broader audience. All of the articles are written by authors. The website includes lots of other interesting research summaries on a variety of topics.


Talk at FFR Workshop

20th May 2016

On Wednesday 18th May, I traveled to Boston MA, for the 2nd Frequency Following Response (FFR) workshop. My talk, entitled “Effect of attention on envelope following responses”, was on the second day of the workshop. There was an exciting program of talks and lots of great opportunities for discussion!


New paper published in Hearing Research

10th May 2016

A paper from my PhD has been accepted in Hearing Research and is now available online. The paper reports three EEG experiments investigating the time course of preparatory attention, when adults (18-27 years) and children (7-13 years) were cued to attend to one of two talkers during multi-talker listening.

Adults and children were able to use visual instructive cues for spatial location (left/right) and gender (male/female) to select words spoken by the target talker. Both adults and children showed preparatory EEG activity very soon (< 50 ms) after they were cued to the spatial location of a target talker. Adults, but not children, showed preparatory EEG activity when they were cued to gender. Although, preparatory EEG activity for gender was only apparent when the cue for gender predicted the specific identity of the male or female talkers and was not present when the gender cue could refer to one of three different male or female talkers.

Overall, the results provide converging evidence that listeners evoke consistent preparatory brain activity for selecting a talker by their location (regardless of their gender or identity), but not by their gender alone.

The paper can be accessed here:

Holmes, E., Kitterick, P.T., Summerfield, A.Q. (2016). EEG activity evoked in preparation for multi-talker listening by adults and children. Hearing Research, 336, 83–100. doi:10.1016/j.heares.2016.04.007


Does instrument familiarity affect the ability to separate multiple competing melodies?

9th May 2016

One of my ongoing research projects was featured in a recent newsletter of the Music Learning Across the Lifespan (MLAL) group of Western University. The project is a collaboration between researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute and at the Don Wright Faculty of Music.

We were interested in whether musical instrument learning affects the perception of melodies played by a trained instrument, compared to instruments on which participants had never been trained. Specifically, we aimed to investigate whether familiarity with an instrument helps people to perceptually separate (or “pull apart”) melodies played simultaneously by different instruments, if one of the instruments is familiar.

You can read about this project and other exciting projects of the MLAL group online in the Spring 2016 newsletter.

The MLAL group has been very successful in promoting collaboration between different departments at Western University. The group has funded collaborative pilot studies and I was very grateful to recieve funding as a Prinicipal Investigator to carry out a project in collaboration with the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the end of last year. The project will investigate whether musical instrument learning affects brain responses in a timbre-specific manner.


Three Minute Research Competition

28th April 2016

Today, I entered the Three Minute Research competition for postdocs at Western University. The competition was modeled on the increasingly popular Three Minute Thesis competition, which was first held at the University of Queensland in 2008. The aim of the computition is to convey your research in less than three minutes and engage an audience of non-specialists—with only one PowerPoint slide allowed! A panel of judges evaluated our presentations and I was awarded a prize, which includes funding for travel to a future conference. Overall, the competition provided an interesting opportunity to think in more depth about the broader implications of my research and was a great exercise in science communication. I recommend that everyone has a go at this in the future!