Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
A sound turned off for a short moment can be perceived as continuous if the silent gap is filled with noise. The neural mechanisms underlying this “continuity illusion” were investigated using the mismatch negativity (MMN), an eventrelated potential reflecting the perception of a sudden change in an otherwise regular stimulus sequence. The MMN was recorded in four conditions using an oddball paradigm. The standards consisted of 500-Hz, 120-msec tone pips that were either physically continuous (Condition 1) or were interrupted by a 40-msec silent gap (Condition 2). The deviants consisted of the interrupted tone, but with the silent gap filled by a burst of bandpass-filtered noise. The noise either occupied the same frequency region as the tone and elicited the continuity illusion (Conditions 1a and 2a), or occupied a remote frequency region and did not elicit the illusion (Conditions 1b and 2b). We predicted that, if the continuity illusion is determined before MMN generation, then, other things being equal, the MMN should be larger in conditions where the deviants are perceived as continuous and the standards as interrupted or vice versa, than when both were perceived as continuous or both interrupted. Consistent with this prediction, we observed an interaction between standard type and noise frequency region, with the MMN being larger in Condition 1a than in Condition 1b, but smaller in Condition 2a than in Condition 2b. Because the subjects were instructed to ignore the tones and watch a silent movie during the recordings, the results indicate that the continuity illusion can occur outside the focus of attention. Furthermore, the latency of the MMN (less than approximately 200 msec postdeviance onset) places an upper limit on the stage of neural processing responsible for the illusion.