Imperial College London

Spatial hearing training in virtual reality with simulated asymmetric hearing loss

Chiara Valzolgher, Sara Capra, Kevin Sum, Livio Finos, Francesco Pavani, Lorenzo Picinali
January 30, 2024
Scientific Reports
Nature Portfolio

Sound localization is essential to perceive the surrounding world and to interact with objects. This ability can be learned across time, and multisensory and motor cues play a crucial role in the learning process. A recent study demonstrated that when training localization skills, reaching to the sound source to determine its position reduced localization errors faster and to a greater extent as compared to just naming sources’ positions, despite the fact that in both tasks, participants received the same feedback about the correct position of sound sources in case of wrong response. However, it remains to establish which features have made reaching to sound more effective as compared to naming. In the present study, we introduced a further condition in which the hand is the effector providing the response, but without it reaching toward the space occupied by the target source: the pointing condition. We tested three groups of participants (naming, pointing, and reaching groups) each while performing a sound localization task in normal and altered listening situations (i.e. mild-moderate unilateral hearing loss) simulated through auditory virtual reality technology. The experiment comprised four blocks: during the first and the last block, participants were tested in normal listening condition, while during the second and the third in altered listening condition. We measured their performance, their subjective judgments (e.g. effort), and their head-related behavior (through kinematic tracking). First, people’s performance decreased when exposed to asymmetrical mild-moderate hearing impairment, more specifically on the ipsilateral side and for the pointing group. Second, we documented that all groups decreased their localization errors across altered listening blocks, but the extent of this reduction was higher for reaching and pointing as compared to the naming group. Crucially, the reaching group leads to a greater error reduction for the side where the listening alteration was applied. Furthermore, we documented that, across blocks, reaching and pointing groups increased the implementation of head motor behavior during the task (i.e., they increased approaching head movements toward the space of the sound) more than naming. Third, while performance in the unaltered blocks (first and last) was comparable, only the reaching group continued to exhibit a head behavior similar to those developed during the altered blocks (second and third), corroborating the previous observed relationship between the reaching to sounds task and head movements. In conclusion, this study further demonstrated the effectiveness of reaching to sounds as compared to pointing and naming in the learning processes. This effect could be related both to the process of implementing goal-directed motor actions and to the role of reaching actions in fostering the implementation of head-related motor strategies.

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