The role of envelope shape in the localization of multiple sound sources and echoes in the barn owl.

Journal of neurophysiology

PubMedID: 23175801

Baxter CS, Nelson BS, Takahashi TT. The role of envelope shape in the localization of multiple sound sources and echoes in the barn owl. J Neurophysiol. 2013;109(4):924-31.
Echoes and sounds of independent origin often obscure sounds of interest, but echoes can go undetected under natural listening conditions, a perception called the precedence effect. How does the auditory system distinguish between echoes and independent sources? To investigate, we presented two broadband noises to barn owls (Tyto alba) while varying the similarity of the sounds' envelopes. The carriers of the noises were identical except for a 2- or 3-ms delay. Their onsets and offsets were also synchronized. In owls, sound localization is guided by neural activity on a topographic map of auditory space. When there are two sources concomitantly emitting sounds with overlapping amplitude spectra, space map neurons discharge when the stimulus in their receptive field is louder than the one outside it and when the averaged amplitudes of both sounds are rising. A model incorporating these features calculated the strengths of the two sources' representations on the map (B. S. Nelson and T. T. Takahashi; Neuron 67: 643-655, 2010). The target localized by the owls could be predicted from the model's output. The model also explained why the echo is not localized at short delays: when envelopes are similar, peaks in the leading sound mask corresponding peaks in the echo, weakening the echo's space map representation. When the envelopes are dissimilar, there are few or no corresponding peaks, and the owl localizes whichever source is predicted by the model to be less masked. Thus the precedence effect in the owl is a by-product of a mechanism for representing multiple sound sources on its map.