Abstract: Schema learning for the cocktail party problem

Schema learning for the cocktail party problem

K J P Woods and J H McDermott

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol.115 pp. E3313-E3322, Apr 2018.

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  • The cocktail party problem requires listeners to infer individual sound sources from mixtures of sound. The problem can be solved only by leveraging regularities in natural sound sources, but little is known about how such regularities are internalized. We explored whether listeners learn source "schemas" - the abstract structure shared by different occurrences of the same type of sound source - and use them to infer sources from mixtures. We measured the ability of listeners to segregate mixtures of time-varying sources. In each experiment a subset of trials contained schema-based sources generated from a common template by transformations (transposition and time dilation) that introduced acoustic variation but preserved abstract structure. Across several tasks and classes of sound sources, schema-based sources consistently aided source separation, in some cases producing rapid improvements in performance over the first few exposures to a schema. Learning persisted across blocks that did not contain the learned schema, and listeners were able to learn and use multiple schemas simultaneously. No learning was evident when schema were presented in the task-irrelevant (i.e., distractor) source. However, learning from task-relevant stimuli showed signs of being implicit, in that listeners were no more likely to report that sources recurred in experiments containing schema-based sources than in control experiments containing no schema-based sources. The results implicate a mechanism for rapidly internalizing abstract sound structure, facilitating accurate perceptual organization of sound sources that recur in the environment.
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