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Auditory processing skills

The ability to engage in complex processes such as understanding spoken language or playing a musical instrument relies on auditory processing skills. Auditory processing is not a rigid encapsulated skill; rather, it is a complex set of abilities that interacts intimately with other neural systems and is affected by experience, environmental influences and active training. Auditory processing is related to language and cognitive function, and auditory processing difficulties directly impact language intake abilities and the quality of life of children to adults.

A striking example of the effects of experience on the auditory system is that even though human babies are born with the ability to discriminate all possible speech sounds and sounds found in their environment, this ability is constrained and conditioned by learning their native language. The infants’ auditory system becomes habituated though the daily experience of listening to the parents’ native tongue, enhancing and influencing the discriminatory ability of the infant’s auditory system to focus on those speech frequencies (perceived pitch), particular to that their native language. An outcome of this progression is reduced perceptual sensitivity to other languages with time. This suggests that language experience fundamentally changes the neural circuitry of the auditory pathways. Research also shows us that the auditory system is very malleable to experiences throughout life, indicating that auditory processing skills are malleable.

Research has shown that the degree of literacy and speech perception deficits in school-aged children correlates with the degree of physiological deficits in auditory processing skills. Therefore, remediation of auditory processing deficits is possible, due to this plasticity and malleability of the auditory system. There is a growing body of research showing that auditory training can alleviate language problems in some children with language impairments, and improve literacy-related skills in normally developing children; even in instances in which training does not result in measurable gains to literacy-related skills, normalizing effects on auditory physiology (auditory processing skills) has been observed.

Taken from Kraus, N. & Banai, K. (2007) Auditory-Processing Malleability: focus on language and music. Association for Psycholgogical Science Vol 16 No 2 pg 105-110.

Nina Kraus is Professor of Neurobiology & Physiology, Otolaryngology at Northwestern University, USA.