Spectral Weighting Underlies Perceived Sound Elevation

Sci Rep. 2019 Feb 7;9(1):1642. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-37537-z.


The brain estimates the two-dimensional direction of sounds from the pressure-induced displacements of the eardrums. Accurate localization along the horizontal plane (azimuth angle) is enabled by binaural difference cues in timing and intensity. Localization along the vertical plane (elevation angle), including frontal and rear directions, relies on spectral cues made possible by the elevation dependent filtering in the idiosyncratic pinna cavities. However, the problem of extracting elevation from the sensory input is ill-posed, since the spectrum results from a convolution between source spectrum and the particular head-related transfer function (HRTF) associated with the source elevation, which are both unknown to the system. It is not clear how the auditory system deals with this problem, or which implicit assumptions it makes about source spectra. By varying the spectral contrast of broadband sounds around the 6-9 kHz band, which falls within the human pinna's most prominent elevation-related spectral notch, we here suggest that the auditory system performs a weighted spectral analysis across different frequency bands to estimate source elevation. We explain our results by a model, in which the auditory system weighs the different spectral bands, and compares the convolved weighted sensory spectrum with stored information about its own HRTFs, and spatial prior assumptions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Nontherapeutic Human Experimentation
  • Reaction Time
  • Young Adult