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Dev Psychol. 2013 Oct;49(10):1982-93. doi: 10.1037/a0031207. Epub 2012 Dec 31.

Development of attentional control of verbal auditory perception from middle to late childhood: comparisons to healthy aging.

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Center for Lifespan Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.


Multitalker situations confront listeners with a plethora of competing auditory inputs, and hence require selective attention to relevant information, especially when the perceptual saliency of distracting inputs is high. This study augmented the classical forced-attention dichotic listening paradigm by adding an interaural intensity manipulation to investigate developmental differences in the interplay between perceptual saliency and attentional control during auditory processing between early and middle childhood. We found that older children were able to flexibly focus on instructed auditory inputs from either the right or the left ear, overcoming the effects of perceptual saliency. In contrast, younger children implemented their attentional focus less efficiently. Direct comparisons of the present data with data from a recently published study of younger and older adults from our group suggest that younger children and older adults show similar levels of performance. Critically, follow-up comparisons revealed that younger children's performance restrictions reflect difficulties in attentional control only, whereas older adults' performance deficits also reflect an exaggerated reliance on perceptual saliency. We conclude that auditory attentional control improves considerably from middle to late childhood and that auditory attention deficits in healthy aging cannot be reduced to a simple reversal of child developmental improvements.

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