Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The mismatch negativity (MMN) component of event-related brain potentials is elicited by infrequent changes in regular acoustic sequences even if the participant is not actively listening to the sound sequence. Therefore, the MMN is assumed to result from a preattentive process in which an incoming sound is checked against the automatically detected regularities of the auditory sequence and is found to violate them. For example, presenting a discriminably different (deviant) sound within the sequence of a repetitive (standard) sound elicits the MMN. In the present article, we tested whether the memory organization of the auditory sequence can affect the preattentive change detection indexed by the MMN. In Experiment 1, trains of six standard tones were presented with a short, 0.5-sec stimulus onset asynchrony (SOA) between tones in the train. This was followed by a variable SOA between the last standard and the deviant tone (the “irregular presentation” condition). Of 12 participants displaying an MMN at the 0.5-sec predeviant SOA, it was elicited by 11 with the 2-sec predeviant SOA, in 5 participants with the 7-sec SOA, and in none with the 10-sec SOA. In Experiment 2, we repeated the 7-sec irregular predeviant SOA condition, along with a “regular presentation” condition in which the SOA between any two tones was 7 sec. MMN was elicited in about half of the participants (9 out of 16) in the irregular presentation condition, whereas in the regular presentation condition, MMN was elicited in all participants. These results cannot be explained on the basis of memory-strength decay but can be interpreted in terms of automatic, auditory preperceptual grouping principles. In the irregular presentation condition, the close grouping of standards may cause them to become irrelevant to the mismatch process when the deviant tone is presented after a long silent break. Because the MMN indexes preattentive auditory processing, the present results provide evidence that large-scale preperceptual organization of auditory events occurs despite attention being directed away from the auditory stimuli.