Preattentive extraction of abstract auditory rules in speech sound stream : a mismatch negativity study using lexical tones
Date of Issue2012
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Background. Extraction of linguistically relevant auditory features is critical for speech comprehension in complex auditory environments, in which the relationships between acoustic stimuli are often abstract and constant while the stimuli per se are varying. These relationships are referred to as the abstract auditory rule in speech and have been investigated for their underlying neural mechanisms at an attentive stage. However, the issue of whether or not there is a sensory intelligence that enables one to automatically encode abstract auditory rules in speech at a preattentive stage has not yet been thoroughly addressed. Methodology/Principal Findings. We chose Chinese lexical tones for the current study because they help to define word meaning and hence facilitate the fabrication of an abstract auditory rule in a speech sound stream. We continuously presented native Chinese speakers with Chinese vowels differing in formant, intensity, and level of pitch to construct a complex and varying auditory stream. In this stream, most of the sounds shared flat lexical tones to form an embedded abstract auditory rule. Occasionally the rule was randomly violated by those with a rising or falling lexical tone. The results showed that the violation of the abstract auditory rule of lexical tones evoked a robust preattentive auditory response, as revealed by whole-head electrical recordings of the mismatch negativity (MMN), though none of the subjects acquired explicit knowledge of the rule or became aware of the violation. Conclusions/Significance. Our results demonstrate that there is an auditory sensory intelligence in the perception of Chinese lexical tones. The existence of this intelligence suggests that the humans can automatically extract abstract auditory rules in speech at a preattentive stage to ensure speech communication in complex and noisy auditory environments without drawing on conscious resources.
© 2012 The Author(s). This paper was published in PLoS ONE and is made available as an electronic reprint (preprint) with permission of Public Library of Science. The paper can be found at the following official DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0030027.g001. One print or electronic copy may be made for personal use only. Systematic or multiple reproduction, distribution to multiple locations via electronic or other means, duplication of any material in this paper for a fee or for commercial purposes, or modification of the content of the paper is prohibited and is subject to penalties under law.