White, B. E., & Clifton, L. (2021, in press). The cortical organization of listening effort: New insight from functional near-infrared spectroscopy. NeuroImage, 118324. . DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118324
Everyday challenges impact our ability to hear and comprehend spoken language with ease, such as accented speech (source factors), spectral degradation (transmission factors), complex or unfamiliar language use (message factors), and predictability (context factors). Auditory degradation and linguistic complexity in the brain and behavior have been well investigated, and several computational models have emerged. The work here provides a novel test of the hypotheses that listening effort is partially reliant on higher cognitive auditory attention and working memory mechanisms in the frontal lobe, and partially reliant on hierarchical linguistic computation in the brain's left hemisphere. We specifically hypothesize that these models are robust and can be applied in ecologically relevant and coarse-grain contexts that rigorously control for acoustic and linguistic listening challenges. Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy during an auditory plausibility judgment task, we show the hierarchical cortical organization for listening effort in the frontal and left temporal-parietal brain regions. In response to increasing levels of cognitive demand, we found (i) poorer comprehension, (ii) slower reaction times, (iii) increasing levels of perceived mental effort, (iv) increasing levels of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, (v) hierarchical modulation of core language processing regions that reflect increasingly higher-order auditory-linguistic processing, and (vi) a correlation between participants’ mental effort ratings and their performance on the task. Our results demonstrate that listening effort is partly reliant on higher cognitive auditory attention and working memory mechanisms in the frontal lobe and partly reliant on hierarchical linguistic computation in the brain's left hemisphere. Further, listening effort is driven by a voluntary, motivation-based attention system for which our results validate the use of a single-item post-task questionnaire for measuring perceived levels of mental effort and predicting listening performance. We anticipate our study to be a starting point for more sophisticated models of listening effort and even cognitive neuroplasticity in hearing aid and cochlear implant users.