Sound localization at cocktail parties is easier for men

June 30, 2011

Differences in male and female behaviour are often subject to study. Women are known to be more verbally fluent, have better manual dexterity and are better at noticing things (like a new haircut). Men on the other hand often take less time parking their cars and have less trouble than women in navigating in a new city. The latter capacities, in which men tend to excel, are known as visuo-spatial abilities. A new study has demonstrated that men have a similar advantage in their hearing. The findings are published in the June 2011 issue of Cortex.

Ida Zündorf from the Center of Neurology at Tübingen University, together with Prof. Hans-Otto Karnath and Dr. Jörg Lewald, investigated the audio-spatial abilities in healthy men and women by means of a sound-localization task. Participants were asked to listen to sounds and determine the location of the sound source, either by pointing towards it or by naming the exact position (e.g. 45 degrees left). At first, sounds were presented one at a time and both men and women accomplished the task with great accuracy. Later, several sounds were presented simultaneously and participants had to focus on and localize only one sound. This is known as the cocktail party phenomenon – the human capacity to detect and focus on one particular sound source in a noisy environment. Interestingly, women found the second task much more difficult, compared to men, to the extent that in some cases they even thought the sounds were coming from the opposite direction.

These results suggest that men are not only better at visuo-spatial tasks, but also in auditory-spatial tasks. Since this male advantage was only found in the cocktail party situation, i.e. performed equally well when sounds were presented one at a time, this indicates that the difference is related to a "high attentional mechanism" in the brain specifically involved in extracting spatial information of one particular sound source in a noisy environment. It has been speculated that have developed these as the result of natural and sexual selection throughout human evolution.

More information: The article is "Male advantage in sound localization at cocktail parties" by Ida C. Zündorf, Hans-Otto Karnath and Jörg Lewald, and appears in Cortex, Volume 47, Issue 6 (June 2011).

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not rated yet Jul 01, 2011
This ability changes through the day with localisation better at night and sensitivity (ability to hear quieter sounds) better in the morning.

Caffeine and alcohol also influence one's ability to localise sound due to change in tension on the ear drum and bones (via tensor timpani and stapedius). When designing and testing sound systems I noted the difference in sound upon alcohol and caffeine use with better bass sound and higher tolerance of high frequency sounds upon alcohol use and more accurate high frequency perception, depth and stereo image upon caffeine use, as well as the night-morning differences due to the circadian rhythm and listener fatigue.

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