Spatial hearing allows us to localize sounds in our environment. This is an important aspect of directing spatial attention toward important events, and directing our eyes toward objects of interest. For animals, sound localization can be vital for finding prey, or knowing which way to run when escaping predators.
Less obviously, spatial hearing also helps us to understand important sounds, like speech.
Next time you are in a noisy place with many people talking, try to pay attention to a conversation in front of you, and then a different one to the side. Notice that not only can you tell the conversations apart, their spatial separation also makes them easier to understand individually. Next, plug one of your ears with a finger; the two conversations will be much harder to separate and understand (scientists would say they "mask" each other), and you may become aware that echoes and other interfering noises become more apparent.
That's because your binaural auditory system provides two important benefits: "spatial release from masking" and "echo suppression."
Without those benefits, understanding sounds in complex acoustic scenes becomes very difficult. Importantly, both aging and hearing impairment are known to affect these skills, so that impaired listeners continue to experience difficulty in noisy and reverberant environments, even with expensive modern hearing aids. Understanding why spatial release and echo suppression are so effective for young normal hearing listeners is an important goal of today's auditory scientists.
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