Attentional modulation and domain-specificity underlying the neural organization of auditory categorical perception


Categorical perception (CP) is highly evident in audition when listeners’ perception of speech sounds abruptly shifts identity despite equidistant changes in stimulus acoustics. While CP is an inherent property of speech perception, how (if) it is expressed in other auditory modalities (e.g., music) is less clear. Moreover, prior neuroimaging studies have been equivocal on whether attentional engagement is necessary for the brain to categorically organize sound. To address these questions, we recorded neuroelectric brain responses [event-related potentials (ERPs)] from listeners as they rapidly categorized sounds along a speech and music continuum (active task) or during passive listening. Behaviorally, listeners’ achieved sharper psychometric functions and faster identification for speech than musical stimuli, which was perceived in a continuous mode. Behavioral results coincided with stronger ERP differentiation between prototypical and ambiguous tokens (i.e., categorical processing) for speech but not for music. Neural correlates of CP were only observed when listeners actively attended to the auditory signal. These findings were corroborated by brain-behavior associations; changes in neural activity predicted more successful CP (psychometric slopes) for active but not passively evoked ERPs. Our results demonstrate auditory categorization is influenced by attention (active > passive) and is stronger for more familiar/overlearned stimulus domains (speech > music). In contrast to previous studies examining highly trained listeners (i.e., musicians), we infer that (i) CP skills are largely domain-specific and do not generalize to stimuli for which a listener has no immediate experience and (ii) categorical neural processing requires active engagement with the auditory stimulus.

Publication Title

European Journal of Neuroscience