Linguistic processing of task-irrelevant speech at a Cocktail Party

  1. Paz Har-shai Yahav  Is a corresponding author
  2. Elana Zion Golumbic  Is a corresponding author
  1. Bar Ilan University, Israel


Paying attention to one speaker in noisy environments can be extremely difficult, because to-be-attended and task-irrelevant speech compete for processing resources. We tested whether this competition is restricted to acoustic-phonetic interference or if it extends to competition for linguistic processing as well. Neural activity was recorded using Magnetoencephalography as human participants were instructed to attended to natural speech presented to one ear, and task-irrelevant stimuli were presented to the other. Task-irrelevant stimuli consisted either of random sequences of syllables, or syllables structured to form coherent sentences, using hierarchical frequency-tagging. We find that the phrasal structure of structured task-irrelevant stimuli was represented in the neural response in left inferior frontal and posterior parietal regions, indicating that selective attention does not fully eliminate linguistic processing of task-irrelevant speech. Additionally, neural tracking of to-be-attended speech in left inferior frontal regions was enhanced when competing with structured task-irrelevant stimuli, suggesting inherent competition between them for linguistic processing.

Data availability

The Full MEG data and examples of the stimuli are now available on the Open Science Framework repository (

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Paz Har-shai Yahav

    Gonda Center for Brain Research, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-3666-3338
  2. Elana Zion Golumbic

    Gonda Center for Brain Research, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-8831-3188


Binational Science Foundation (Grant # 2015385)

  • Elana Zion Golumbic

Israel Science Foundation (Grant #2339/20)

  • Elana Zion Golumbic

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: The study was approved by the IRB committee at Bar-Ilan University and all participants provided their written consent for participation prior to the experiment.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Barbara G Shinn-Cunningham, Carnegie Mellon University, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: November 22, 2020
  2. Accepted: April 26, 2021
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: May 4, 2021 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: May 28, 2021 (version 2)


© 2021, Har-shai Yahav & Zion Golumbic

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Paz Har-shai Yahav
  2. Elana Zion Golumbic
Linguistic processing of task-irrelevant speech at a Cocktail Party
eLife 10:e65096.

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