Event-related brain potentials and the perception of a phonetic continuum

O Aaltonen, P Niemi, T Nyrke, M Tuhkanen
Biological Psychology 1987, 24 (3): 197-207
Competing predictions concerning phoneme discrimination were tested by means of event-related potentials. In research on speech perception, one tradition stems from the physiology of the auditory system whereas another emphasizes categorical perception which involves a marked psychological component. The stimuli were the end points of the Finnish (i)-(y) continuum together with the intermediate boundary sound. Two of these stimuli were presented in each block of trials. One (the 'standard') had a high probability while the other (the 'deviant') was rare. The so-called mismatch negativity (MMN) component of the ERP in response to deviant stimuli showed a large amplitude and short latency when these two stimuli were pure vowels (i) and (y). When the boundary stimulus and one of the pure vowels comprised the stimulus pair, a smaller and more delayed MMN occurred. This result may be taken as support that the discrimination occurs at a basic physiological level. On the other hand, cognitive perception was reflected in the different latencies of the P3 component to (i) and (y). In sum, the results lend support to multilevel hybrid models in the explanation of vowel perception.

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