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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

April 2018, Vol. 30, No. 4, Pages 498-513
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01210)
© 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Hearing Shapes: Event-related Potentials Reveal the Time Course of Auditory–Visual Sensory Substitution
Article PDF (3.12 MB)
In auditory–visual sensory substitution, visual information (e.g., shape) can be extracted through strictly auditory input (e.g., soundscapes). Previous studies have shown that image-to-sound conversions that follow simple rules [such as the Meijer algorithm; Meijer, P. B. L. An experimental system for auditory image representation. Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, 39, 111–121, 1992] are highly intuitive and rapidly learned by both blind and sighted individuals. A number of recent fMRI studies have begun to explore the neuroplastic changes that result from sensory substitution training. However, the time course of cross-sensory information transfer in sensory substitution is largely unexplored and may offer insights into the underlying neural mechanisms. In this study, we recorded ERPs to soundscapes before and after sighted participants were trained with the Meijer algorithm. We compared these posttraining versus pretraining ERP differences with those of a control group who received the same set of 80 auditory/visual stimuli but with arbitrary pairings during training. Our behavioral results confirmed the rapid acquisition of cross-sensory mappings, and the group trained with the Meijer algorithm was able to generalize their learning to novel soundscapes at impressive levels of accuracy. The ERP results revealed an early cross-sensory learning effect (150–210 msec) that was significantly enhanced in the algorithm-trained group compared with the control group as well as a later difference (420–480 msec) that was unique to the algorithm-trained group. These ERP modulations are consistent with previous fMRI results and provide additional insight into the time course of cross-sensory information transfer in sensory substitution.