Auditory Scene Analysis and the Role of Phenomenology in Experimental Psychology

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This paper is about two topics: a) the role of subjectivity in psychological research; and, b) my research on the perceptual organization of sound, in which subjectivity has played an important role. Audio demonstrations that appeal to the subjective experience of the reader are presented in lieu of objective research data to support the claims made about auditory organization. It is argued that all psychological research depends on an underlying framework of intuition (unformalized knowledge acquired through everyday experience), and that this intuition plays a role in the design of the experiment.

Personal Experience as Data

The personal experience of the researcher has not fared well in scientific psychology. Since the failure of Titchener's Introspectionism in the early 20th century, and the rise of Behaviourism, scientific psychology has harboured a deep suspicion of the experience of the researcher as an acceptable tool in research. One would think that the study of perception would be exempt from this suspicion, since the subject matter of the psychology of perception is supposed to be about how a person's experience is derived from sensory input. Instead, academic psychology, in its behaviouristic zeal, redefined perception as the ability to respond differently to different stimuli - bringing it into the stimulus-response framework. Despite Behaviourism's fall from grace, psychology still insists on a behaviouristic research methodology.

In my own research, however, subjectivity has played a central role. It was a perceptual experience that got me going on the topic of perceptual organization in the first place: I was preparing an experiment on learning, involving a rapid sequence of unrelated sounds, each about the length of a speech phoneme. I spliced together one-tenth-second segments of many different sounds - water splashing in a sink, a dentist's drill, a tone, a vowel, etc. When I played the tape back to myself, though, I did not experience the sequences in the order that they were recorded on the tape. It appeared that nonadjacent sounds were grouping together and appeared to be adjacent. It was the similar sounds that seemed to be forming integrated perceptual sequences. This reminded me of an essay I had written at the University of Toronto on the topic of Gestalt Psychology. Some of the Gestaltist examples showed that similar visual forms would group together and segregate from dissimilar ones. Perhaps an analogous sort of grouping might be happening in my auditory sequence. Although I had never been trained in auditory perception research, this one subjective experience set me off on a 36-year period of study.

When I use the term "phenomenology," it is not with the technical meaning it has in the writings of Husserl or Heidegger, but is just a fancy name for experience. In all my years of research on the conditions under which a mixture of sounds will blend or be heard as separate sounds, my own phenomenology has played a central role in deciding what to study and how to study it. Also, the subjective experiences of colleagues and students have made it possible for them to understand the phenomena by listening to auditory demonstrations. I almost never carried out a study whose outcome I did not know in advance by listening to the stimuli. Only when I had figured out the conditions that would give rise to the effect I wanted to study, would I design a formal experiment.

It is impossible to overestimate how many years of research this saved. It made it possible to study a large set of theoretical issues in perceptual organization without elaborate sets of preliminary experiments to establish the right parameters. The approach of listening to many variants of the signals and getting familiar with their effects at a personal level permitted us to speed up the development of a general overview of auditory grouping (Bregman, 1990/1994), rather than to merely accumulate more and more highly quantitative knowledge about a narrow experimental paradigm - a not-unknown practice in experimental psychology. …