Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Discrimination of Personally Significant from Nonsignificant Sounds: A Training Study

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Discrimination of Personally Significant from Nonsignificant Sounds: A Training Study

Article excerpt

Published online: 19 May 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Discriminating personally significant from nonsignificant sounds is of high behavioral relevance and appears to be performed effortlessly outside of the focus of attention. Although there is no doubt that we automatically monitor our auditory environment for unexpected, and hence potentially significant, events, the characteristics of detection mechanisms based on individual memory schemata have been far less explored. The experiments in the present study were designed to measure event-related potentials (ERPs) sensitive to the discrimination of personally significant and nonsignificant nonlinguistic sounds. Participants were presented with random sequences of acoustically variable sounds, one of which was associated with personal significance for each of the participants. In Experiment 1, each participant's own mobile SMS ringtone served as his or her significant sound. In Experiment 2, a nonsignificant sound was instead trained to become personally significant to each participant over a period of one month. ERPs revealed differential processing of personally significant and nonsignificant sounds from about 200 ms after stimulus onset, even when the sounds were task-irrelevant. We propose the existence of a mechanism for the detection of significant sounds that does not rely on the detection of acoustic deviation. From a comparison of the results from our active- and passive-listening conditions, this discriminative process based on individual memory schemata seems to be obligatory, whereas the impact of individual memory schemata on further stages of auditory processing may require top-down guidance.

Keywords Novelty . Deviance detection . Significance . Familiarity . Auditory processing . ERP .MMN

Sounds of personal significance seem to have a privileged role in auditory processing. In everyday life, this becomes most obvious when certain auditory events-such as the utterance of one's own name, a familiar music piece, or the ringing of one's own mobile phone-are distracting, whereas other unfamiliar, yet acoustically similar, sounds can remain unnoticed. Empirical evidence for this often-reported phenomenon suggests that significant sounds capture attention preferentially (Moray, 1959; Treisman, 1960; Wood & Cowan, 1995) and elicit a specific pattern of physiological reactions (cf. the orienting response; Gati & Ben-Shakhar, 1990; Öhman, 1979). Although these results can be interpreted with regard to behavioral consequences, they also allow for limited inferences regarding the stage of processing at which the acoustic input is matched involuntarily with existing memory schemata (Bregman, 1990) that represent the personal significance of a particular sound pattern.

Within the present article, we will stress the concept of "personal significance" and aim to distinguish it from the concept of "familiarity." Perceptual familiarity is necessary but not sufficient to characterize a stimulus as being personally significant. As compared with familiarity, significance is regarded as a result of additional qualitative components, such as emotional and behavioral relevance. Hence, a stimulus will be considered of significance when it has affective meaning or when the stimulus carries a sufficient amount of informational value and behavioral relevance. Thus, the significant stimulus is prone to provoke behavior following its occurrence (e.g., Sokolov, 1963). To a certain degree, a stimulus's significance applies regardless of the situational context (Gronau, Cohen, & Ben-Shakhar, 2003), and the physiological sensitivity to react is higher for significant sounds, even when no reaction is required in the current situation (Elaad & Ben-Shakhar, 1989), as is measurable by an enhanced orienting reaction and slower habituation (Sokolov, 1963). In the present article, the concept of significance is used with additional emphasis on its subjectivity. …

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