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Poster E76, Friday, November 10, 10:00 – 11:15 am, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

Neural responses to environmental sounds in sentence context

Sophia Uddin1, Shannon Heald1, Howard Nusbaum1;1University of Chicago

Despite the fact that environmental sounds are acoustically distinct from speech, in prior studies we have found that they are quickly and easily recognized and understood in sentence context. The results show that listeners can use linguistic context to aid in understanding these sounds in much the same way as for spoken words.  Given that similar behavior can arise from different neural mechanisms, we conducted an ERP study to assess N400 responses to these sounds and spoken words in sentence contexts. Listeners heard sentences ending in either an environmental sound or a spoken word. In half the sentences, the last item made sense with the preceding context (“meaningful”), and in half it did not (“nonsense”). Replicating many prior studies, nonsense sentences ending in words produced a stronger central negativity corresponding to the typical N400 than meaningful sentences (consistent with previous literature). By comparison, environmental sounds elicited two phasic ERP responses with similar scalp distribution in the same time window. The earlier response varied with meaningfulness, with a stronger negativity for nonsense sentences. The fact that the N400 is not higher-amplitude for sounds than for words suggests that listeners do not automatically treat the presence of meaningful nonspeech sounds in sentence context as nonsense. Results suggest that mechanisms for sentence understanding may be more flexible than thought previously, while some ERP differences between sounds and words may reflect relative unfamiliarity with recognizing environmental sounds in spoken sentence context. 

Topic Area: Perception: Speech Perception and Audiovisual Integration

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