Abstract

Widmann, A., Engbert, R., & Schröger, E. (2014). Microsaccadic responses indicate fast categorization of sounds: a novel approach to study auditory cognition. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(33), 11152-11158.

Microsaccadic responses indicate fast categorization of sounds: a novel approach to study auditory cognition

The mental chronometry of the human brain's processing of sounds to be categorized as targets has intensively been studied in cognitive neuroscience. According to current theories, a series of successive stages consisting of the registration, identification, and categorization of the sound has to be completed before participants are able to report the sound as a target by button press after approximately 300-500 ms. Here we use miniature eye movements as a tool to study the categorization of a sound as a target or nontarget, indicating that an initial categorization is present already after 80-100 ms. During visual fixation, the rate of microsaccades, the fastest components of miniature eye movements, is transiently modulated after auditory stimulation. In two experiments, we measured microsaccade rates in human participants in an auditory three-tone oddball paradigm (including rare nontarget sounds) and observed a difference in the microsaccade rates between targets and nontargets as early as 142 ms after sound onset. This finding was replicated in a third experiment with directed saccades measured in a paradigm in which tones had to be matched to score-like visual symbols. Considering the delays introduced by (motor) signal transmission and data analysis constraints, the brain must have differentiated target from nontarget sounds as fast as 80-100 ms after sound onset in both paradigms. We suggest that predictive information processing for expected input makes higher cognitive attributes, such as a sound's identity and category, available already during early sensory processing. The measurement of eye movements is thus a promising approach to investigate hearing.



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