From ringing in the ears to music in the ears
Professor Leah Fostick
Department of Communication Disorders
Professor Leah Fostick’s rich academic career has revolved around many tangents and intersecting circles, including psychology, psychiatry, music and auditory synthesis – in addition to raising six children. She has been able to merge her ability to excel in basic scientific research with her musical knowledge and talent as a trumpet player and apply these abilities to apply her knowledge to research a wide range of subjects in between.
Her interest in psychology and her lifelong passion for music came together in the study of how the human ear and brain work together to receive and perceive sound. She completed a dual major bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Music at Tel Aviv University. Toward the end of her master’s degree, she became a researcher at the Department of Psychiatry at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. She continued her field research in Psychiatry at Tel Hashomer while working for her PhD in Experimental Psychology at Bar Ilan University in the field of psychophysics.
Professor Fostick came to Ariel University in October 2007 and switched her research focus to psychoacoustics, auditory perception and processing, speech perception and phonological ability, and looking at how these mechanisms work among different groups, such as musicians, aging populations, dyslexics and sleep deprived individuals.
Professor Fostick’s research on auditory processing among the aged examines not only at how well older people hear, but also their ability to process what they’re hearing. One of her studies, published in the European Journal of Ageing in 2019, compares sound processing abilities among aged musicians, aged bridge players and a control group. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10433-019-00512-2 “I have the privilege of playing with a group of musicians aged 60-80 in a retirement home every week. I was curious about how my fellow musicians’ auditory processing compared to that of non-musicians. As I began formulating the study in my mind, I noticed a group of bridge-playing residents in an adjacent room. I was curious to find out if maybe their group had something in common with my fellow musicians. It turned out that they, too, get together socially every week and take part in a group activity requiring intellectual thought, analysis and teamwork. I decided to extend my comparative study to include a third group – the bridge players.” The results of the study revealed that older people who had been actively involved in music for most of their lives displayed the highest speech perception abilities compared to those in the control group who were not involved in music or other group activities. However, the bridge players’ speech perception abilities, although lower than the musicians’, surpassed those of the control group. It is likely that declined hearing with age also leads to increased social isolation, and because these people do not regularly ‘tune into others’, further cognitive decline may ensue. A comparison among the three groups further showed that although the musicians scored higher in auditory processing, the card players and control groups were the same. However, the speech perception of the card players was higher than that of the control group, who were not involved in regular social interactions.
Another research study led by Prof. Fostick deals with how a person’s emotional state of mind affects basic sound processing. She collaborated with Dr. Charles Limb from the University of California at San Francisco, himself a professional musician and otologist, specializing in cochlear implant surgery, Dr. Adriana Zekveld from VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam and Prof. Boaz Ben-David from IDC Herzliya. “We wanted to learn how state of mind affects speech perception. To do so, we tested whether a tonality-inflicted emotional state can affect basic perceptual performance, such as speech perception.” Thirty participants were asked to repeat consonant-vowel-consonant words (as in standard hearing tests) that were presented with original background music composed of major and minor scales, in fast and slow tempo. Each melody repeated in four different versions: major, minor, fast, and slow, creating major-fast, major-slow, minor-fast, and minor-slow combinations. The signal-to-noise ratio, (volume of the background music) varied from time to time. A higher accuracy rate was obtained among subjects whose background music was of slow tempo and major tonality, than for fast and minor background music. “The tempo effect probably reflects energetic masking, but the tonality effect suggests that tonality-inflicted emotional state affects speech perception, with better perception when ‘happy’ (major) background music was played, rather than ‘sad’ (minor).”
What is the best way to transmit audio information to older people with impaired hearing and whose perception of audio information is naturally slower? Is it better to (a) enunciate each word separately with breaks between each word, or to (b) elongate phrases with shorter stops between them? For both variations, two groups with good hearing were tested – young subjects (under the age of 65), and older subjects (65 or older). The length of the phrases from start to stop was equal. It was found that as long as the volume was loud enough for the older subjects, the two variations showed parallel results in both groups. The processing in the younger and older groups was the same, although it was slower in the older participants. Similar results were obtained from studies done by other researchers. “I believe we may have ‘over-screened’ my subjects, however, so we intend to repeat this study to include older subjects whose hearing is less good. Aside from its value as a basic scientific study, we hope that it will add knowledge that will contribute toward creating an application for adjusting and adapting audio stimuli to help older people achieve better sound processing.”
When asked what her dream would be if her resources were unlimited, Prof. Fostick replied that she would continue her research on the elderly, but with far greater scope and ease. “I would expand and improve my sound localization laboratory. Nonetheless, I am continuing to work at my dream all the time.”
Prof. Fostick enjoys collaboration with other departments at Ariel University, such as the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who is engaged in helping to design and create new tools for speech perception. Other cooperative endeavors with engineering deal with machine learning and analyzing emotions in response to acoustical features. There is also collaboration with faculty from the Department of Behavioral Science involving cognitive aspects of her research. “Within our own Department of Communication Disorders, we work together on acoustic issues among people with intellectual disabilities or autism, as well as brain stimulation and auditory processing.
There are 50 students enrolled in each class of students in the Department of Communications Disorders, the vast majority being women. Prof. Fostick teaches courses in psychoacoustics and research methods. She is very proud and excited that the department will be opening a new master’s degree program in the 2020 Fall Semester. “It is a real honor to head the department at Ariel University, which is one of the most highly regarded in the country, ranked along with the other top-notch programs offered in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.”