Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Our ability to detect prominent changes in complex acoustic scenes depends not only on the ear's sensitivity but also on the capacity of the brain to process competing incoming information. Here, employing a combination of psychophysics and magnetoencephalography (MEG), we investigate listeners' sensitivity in situations when two features belonging to the same auditory object change in close succession. The auditory object under investigation is a sequence of tone pips characterized by a regularly repeating frequency pattern. Signals consisted of an initial, regularly alternating sequence of three short (60 msec) pure tone pips (in the form ABCABC…) followed by a long pure tone with a frequency that is either expected based on the on-going regular pattern (“LONG expected”—i.e., “LONG-expected”) or constitutes a pattern violation (“LONG-unexpected”). The change in LONG-expected is manifest as a change in duration (when the long pure tone exceeds the established duration of a tone pip), whereas the change in LONG-unexpected is manifest as a change in both the frequency pattern and a change in the duration. Our results reveal a form of “change deafness,” in that although changes in both the frequency pattern and the expected duration appear to be processed effectively by the auditory system—cortical signatures of both changes are evident in the MEG data—listeners often fail to detect changes in the frequency pattern when that change is closely followed by a change in duration. By systematically manipulating the properties of the changing features and measuring behavioral and MEG responses, we demonstrate that feature changes within the same auditory object, which occur close together in time, appear to compete for perceptual resources.