Causal inference in environmental sound recognition

TitleCausal inference in environmental sound recognition
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsTraer, J, Norman-Haignere, S, McDermott, JH
Date Published03/2021

Sound is caused by physical events in the world. Do humans infer these causes when recognizing sound sources? We tested whether the recognition of common environmental sounds depends on the inference of a basic physical variable -- the source intensity (i.e. the power that produces a sound). A source's intensity can be inferred from the intensity it produces at the ear and its distance, which is normally conveyed by reverberation. Listeners could thus use intensity at the ear and reverberation to constrain recognition by inferring the underlying source intensity. Alternatively, listeners might separate these acoustic cues from their representation of a sound's identity in the interest of invariant recognition. We compared these two hypotheses by measuring recognition accuracy for sounds with typically low or high source intensity (e.g. pepper grinders vs. trucks) that were presented across a range of intensities at the ear or with reverberation cues to distance. The recognition of low-intensity sources (e.g. pepper grinders) was impaired by high presentation intensities or reverberation that conveyed distance, either of which imply high source intensity. Neither effect occurred for high-intensity sources. The results suggest that listeners implicitly use the intensity at the ear along with distance cues to infer a source's power and constrain its identity. The recognition of real-world sounds thus appears to depend upon the inference of their physical generative parameters, even generative parameters whose cues might otherwise be separated from the representation of a sound's identity.

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