Dissociation of human and computer voices in the brain: evidence for a preattentive gestalt-like perception

We investigated the early ("preattentive") cortical processing of voice information, using the so-called "mismatch response". This brain potential allows inferences to be made about the sensory short-term store. Most importantly, the mismatch potential also provides information about the organization of long-term memory traces in the auditory system. Such traces have reliably been reported for phonemes. However, it is unclear whether they also exist for human voice information. To explore this issue, 10 healthy subjects were presented with a single word stimulus uttered by voices of different prototypicality (natural, manipulated, synthetic) in a mismatch experiment (stimulus duration 380 msec, onset-to-onset interval 900 msec). The event-related magnetic fields were recorded by a 148-channel whole-head magnetometer and a source current density modeling of the magnetic field data was performed using a minimum-norm estimate. Each deviating voice signal in a series of standard-voice stimuli evoked a mismatch response that was localized in temporal brain regions bilaterally. Increased mismatch related magnetic flux was observed in response to decreased prototypicality of a presented voice signal, but did not correspond to the acoustic similarity of standard voice and deviant voices. We, therefore, conclude that the mismatch activation predominantly reflects the ecological validity of the voice signals. We further demonstrate that the findings cannot be explained by mere acoustic feature processing, but rather point towards a holistic mapping of the incoming voice signal onto long-term representations in the auditory memory.

Selected Publications

Sonja Lattner, Burkhard Maess, Yunhua Wang, Michael Schauer, Kai Alter, and Angela D. Friederici, "Dissociation of human and computer voices in the brain: evidence for a preattentive gestalt-like perception," Human Brain Mapping 20 (1), 13-21 (2003).

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