Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
A general assumption underlying auditory scene analysis is that the initial grouping of acoustic elements is independent of attention. The effects of attention on auditory stream segregation were investigated by recording event-related potentials (ERPs) while participants either attended to sound stimuli and indicated whether they heard one or two streams or watched a muted movie. The stimuli were pure-tone ABA-patterns that repeated for 10.8 sec with a stimulus onset asynchrony between A and B tones of 100 msec in which the A tone was fixed at 500 Hz, the B tone could be 500, 625, 750, or 1000 Hz, and was a silence. In both listening conditions, an enhancement of the auditory-evoked response (P1-N1-P2 and N1c) to the B tone varied with Δf and correlated with perception of streaming. The ERP from 150 to 250 msec after the beginning of the repeating ABA-patterns became more positive during the course of the trial and was diminished when participants ignored the tones, consistent with behavioral studies indicating that streaming takes several seconds to build up. The N1c enhancement and the buildup over time were larger at right than left temporal electrodes, suggesting a right-hemisphere dominance for stream segregation. Sources in Heschl's gyrus accounted for the ERP modulations related to Δf-based segregation and buildup. These findings provide evidence for two cortical mechanisms of streaming: automatic segregation of sounds and attention-dependent buildup process that integrates successive tones within streams over several seconds.