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Neurobiology: Sound localization

Humans can estimate distances to sound sources better when they move and exploit auditory motion parallax


Excerpt from LMU press release from March 12, 2018:

Where did that noise come from?

The ability to estimate distances to sound sources accurately can be crucial for survival. A new study carried out under the direction of Professor Lutz Wiegrebe at the Department of Biology at LMU sheds light on a novel mechanism that is employed by humans to estimate their relative distance from sound sources. The investigation reveals that humans can perform this task more efficiently when they are allowed to move. The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“We humans find it difficult to assess, either visually or acoustically, how far away an object is from us,” Wiegrebe says. “Our visual system makes use, among other things, of the phenomenon of parallax. When we move, the apparent position of an object that is closer to us moves more within our visual field than an object located further away. This relative motion provides information about the relative distance of the two objects. Localization of sounds is particularly challenging when the nature of the sound source is not clearly defined. It is not that difficult for us to estimate our distance from a speeding ambulance when we hear its siren. But when the sound is unknown, we cannot tell whether we are hearing a faint sound close by or a louder sound further away.

LMU press release