Effortful listening: Sympathetic activity varies as a function of listening demand but parasympathetic activity does not

Kate Slade, Sophia E. Kramer, Stephen Fairclough, Michael Richter

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3 Citations (Scopus)


Research on listening effort has used various physiological measures to examine the biological correlates of listening effort but a systematic examination of the impact of listening demand on cardiac autonomic nervous system activity is still lacking. The presented study aimed to close this gap by assessing cardiac sympathetic and parasympathetic responses to variations in listening demand. For this purpose, 45 participants performed four speech-in-noise tasks differing in listening demand—manipulated as signal-to-noise ratio varying between +23 dB and -16 dB—while their pre-ejection period and respiratory sinus arrythmia responses were assessed. Cardiac responses showed the expected effect of listening demand on sympathetic activity, but failed to provide evidence for the expected listening demand impact on parasympathetic activity: Pre-ejection period reactivity increased with increasing listening demand across the three possible listening conditions and was low in the very high (impossible) demand condition, whereas respiratory sinus arrythmia did not show this pattern. These findings have two main implications. First, cardiac sympathetic responses seem to be the more sensitive correlate of the impact of task demand on listening effort compared to cardiac parasympathetic responses. Second, very high listening demand may lead to disengagement and correspondingly low effort and reduced cardiac sympathetic response.
Original languageEnglish
Article number108348
JournalHearing research
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021


  • Effort
  • Motivational intensity theory
  • Parasympathetic activity
  • Pre-ejection period
  • Respiratory sinus arrythmia
  • Sympathetic activity

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