Attention is required for knowledge-based sequential grouping of syllables into words
How the brain sequentially groups sensory events into temporal chunks and how this process is modulated by attention are fundamental questions in cognitive neuroscience. Sequential grouping includes bottom-up primitive grouping and top-down knowledge-based grouping. In speech perception, grouping acoustic features into syllables can rely on bottom-up acoustic continuity cues but grouping syllables into words critically relies on the listener’s lexical knowledge. This study investigates whether top-down attention is required to apply lexical knowledge to group syllables into words, by concurrently monitoring neural entrainment to syllables and words using electroencephalography (EEG). When attention is directed to a competing speech stream or cross-modally to a silent movie, neural entrainment to syllables is weakened but neural entrainment to words largely diminishes. These results strongly suggest that knowledge-based grouping of syllables into words requires top-down attention and is a bottleneck for the neural processing of unattended speech.
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