Object representation in the human auditory system

István Winkler, Titia L. Van Zuijen, Elyse Sussman, János Horváth, Risto Näätänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


One important principle of object processing is exclusive allocation. Any part of the sensory input, including the border between two objects, can only belong to one object at a time. We tested whether tones forming a spectro-temporal border between two sound patterns can belong to both patterns at the same time. Sequences were composed of low-, intermediate- and high-pitched tones. Tones were delivered with short onset-to-onset intervals causing the high and low tones to automatically form separate low and high sound streams. The intermediate-pitch tones could be perceived as part of either one or the other stream, but not both streams at the same time. Thus these tones formed a pitch 'border' between the two streams. The tones were presented in a fixed, cyclically repeating order. Linking the intermediate-pitch tones with the high or the low tones resulted in the perception of two different repeating tonal patterns. Participants were instructed to maintain perception of one of the two tone patterns throughout the stimulus sequences. Occasional changes violated either the selected or the alternative tone pattern, but not both at the same time. We found that only violations of the selected pattern elicited the mismatch negativity event-related potential, indicating that only this pattern was represented in the auditory system. This result suggests that individual sounds are processed as part of only one auditory pattern at a time. Thus tones forming a spectro-temporal border are exclusively assigned to one sound object at any given time, as are spatio-temporal borders in vision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)625-634
Number of pages10
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2006


  • Auditory sensory memory
  • Auditory stream segregation
  • Event-related potentials
  • Implicit memory
  • Spectro-temporal processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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