Speech processing often occurs amidst competing inputs from other modalities, e.g., listening to the radio while driving. We examined the extent to which dividing attention between auditory and visual modalities (bimodal divided attention) impacts neural processing of natural continuous speech from acoustic to linguistic levels of representation. We recorded electroencephalographic (EEG) responses when human participants performed a challenging primary visual task, imposing low or high cognitive load while listening to audiobook stories as a secondary task. The two dual-task conditions were contrasted with an auditory single-task condition in which participants attended to stories while ignoring visual stimuli. Behaviorally, the high load dual-task condition was associated with lower speech comprehension accuracy relative to the other two conditions. We fitted multivariate temporal response function encoding models to predict EEG responses from acoustic and linguistic speech features at different representation levels, including auditory spectrograms and information-theoretic models of sublexical-, word-form-, and sentence-level representations. Neural tracking of most acoustic and linguistic features remained unchanged with increasing dual-task load, despite unambiguous behavioral and neural evidence of the high load dual-task condition being more demanding. Compared to the auditory single-task condition, dual-task conditions selectively reduced neural tracking of only some acoustic and linguistic features, mainly at latencies >200 ms, while earlier latencies were surprisingly unaffected. These findings indicate that behavioral effects of bimodal divided attention on continuous speech processing occur not due to impaired early sensory representations but likely at later cognitive processing stages. Crossmodal attention-related mechanisms may not be uniform across different speech processing levels.
Zilong Xie and Christian Brodbeck should be considered joint first author.
Handling Editor: Jonathan Peelle