Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
We investigate whether the neural correlates of the continuity illusion, as measured using fMRI, are modulated by attention. As we have shown previously, when two formants of a synthetic vowel are presented in an alternating pattern, the vowel can be identified if the gaps in each formant are filled with bursts of plausible masking noise, causing the illusory percept of a continuous vowel (“Illusion” condition). When the formant-to-noise ratio is increased so that noise no longer plausibly masks the formants, the formants are heard as interrupted (“Illusion Break” condition) and vowels are not identifiable. A region of the left middle temporal gyrus (MTG) is sensitive both to intact synthetic vowels (two formants present simultaneously) and to Illusion stimuli, compared to Illusion Break stimuli. Here, we compared these conditions in the presence and absence of attention. We examined fMRI signal for different sound types under three attentional conditions: full attention to the vowels; attention to a visual distracter; or attention to an auditory distracter. Crucially, although a robust main effect of attentional state was observed in many regions, the effect of attention did not differ systematically for the illusory vowels compared to either intact vowels or to the Illusion Break stimuli in the left STG/MTG vowel-sensitive region. This result suggests that illusory continuity of vowels is an obligatory perceptual process, and operates independently of attentional state. An additional finding was that the sensitivity of primary auditory cortex to the number of sound onsets in the stimulus was modulated by attention.