Pupil Dilation Is Sensitive to Semantic Ambiguity and Acoustic Degradation
Trends in Hearing
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© The Author(s) 2020. Speech comprehension is challenged by background noise, acoustic interference, and linguistic factors, such as the presence of words with more than one meaning (homonyms and homophones). Previous work suggests that homophony in spoken language increases cognitive demand. Here, we measured pupil dilation—a physiological index of cognitive demand—while listeners heard high-ambiguity sentences, containing words with more than one meaning, or well-matched low-ambiguity sentences without ambiguous words. This semantic-ambiguity manipulation was crossed with an acoustic manipulation in two experiments. In Experiment 1, sentences were masked with 30-talker babble at 0 and +6 dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), and in Experiment 2, sentences were heard with or without a pink noise masker at –2 dB SNR. Speech comprehension was measured by asking listeners to judge the semantic relatedness of a visual probe word to the previous sentence. In both experiments, comprehension was lower for high- than for low-ambiguity sentences when SNRs were low. Pupils dilated more when sentences included ambiguous words, even when no noise was added (Experiment 2). Pupil also dilated more when SNRs were low. The effect of masking was larger than the effect of ambiguity for performance and pupil responses. This work demonstrates that the presence of homophones, a condition that is ubiquitous in natural language, increases cognitive demand and reduces intelligibility of speech heard with a noisy background.