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Attention is required for knowledge-based sequential grouping of syllables into words

By Nai Ding, Xunyi Pan, Cheng Luo, Naifei Su, Wen Zhang, Jianfeng Zhang

Posted 08 May 2017
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/135053 (published DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2606-17.2017)

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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