In a Concurrent Memory and Auditory Perception Task, the Pupil Dilation Response Is More Sensitive to Memory Load Than to Auditory Stimulus Characteristics

Adriana A. Zekveld, Sophia E. Kramer, Jerker Rönnberg, Mary Rudner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


OBJECTIVES: Speech understanding may be cognitively demanding, but it can be enhanced when semantically related text cues precede auditory sentences. The present study aimed to determine whether (a) providing text cues reduces pupil dilation, a measure of cognitive load, during listening to sentences, (b) repeating the sentences aloud affects recall accuracy and pupil dilation during recall of cue words, and (c) semantic relatedness between cues and sentences affects recall accuracy and pupil dilation during recall of cue words. DESIGN: Sentence repetition following text cues and recall of the text cues were tested. Twenty-six participants (mean age, 22 years) with normal hearing listened to masked sentences. On each trial, a set of four-word cues was presented visually as text preceding the auditory presentation of a sentence whose meaning was either related or unrelated to the cues. On each trial, participants first read the cue words, then listened to a sentence. Following this they spoke aloud either the cue words or the sentence, according to instruction, and finally on all trials orally recalled the cues. Peak pupil dilation was measured throughout listening and recall on each trial. Additionally, participants completed a test measuring the ability to perceive degraded verbal text information and three working memory tests (a reading span test, a size-comparison span test, and a test of memory updating). RESULTS: Cue words that were semantically related to the sentence facilitated sentence repetition but did not reduce pupil dilation. Recall was poorer and there were more intrusion errors when the cue words were related to the sentences. Recall was also poorer when sentences were repeated aloud. Both behavioral effects were associated with greater pupil dilation. Larger reading span capacity and smaller size-comparison span were associated with larger peak pupil dilation during listening. Furthermore, larger reading span and greater memory updating ability were both associated with better cue recall overall. CONCLUSIONS: Although sentence-related word cues facilitate sentence repetition, our results indicate that they do not reduce cognitive load during listening in noise with a concurrent memory load. As expected, higher working memory capacity was associated with better recall of the cues. Unexpectedly, however, semantic relatedness with the sentence reduced word cue recall accuracy and increased intrusion errors, suggesting an effect of semantic confusion. Further, speaking the sentence aloud also reduced word cue recall accuracy, probably due to articulatory suppression. Importantly, imposing a memory load during listening to sentences resulted in the absence of formerly established strong effects of speech intelligibility on the pupil dilation response. This nullified intelligibility effect demonstrates that the pupil dilation response to a cognitive (memory) task can completely overshadow the effect of perceptual factors on the pupil dilation response. This highlights the importance of taking cognitive task load into account during auditory testing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)272-286
Number of pages15
JournalEar and Hearing
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019

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