Perception & Psychophysics

, Volume 56, Issue 5, pp 501-516

First online:

Signal clustering modulates auditory cortical activity in humans

  • Claude AlainAffiliated withUniversity of CaliforniaVA Medical Center Email author 
  • , David L. WoodsAffiliated withUniversity of CaliforniaVA Medical Center


Auditory streaming and its relevance to attentional processing was examined using event-related brain potentials (ERPs) in situations facilitating perception of one or two streams of sounds. Subjects listened to sequences of brief tones of three different frequencies presented in random order. In evenly spaced (ES) conditions, the three frequencies were equidistant on the musical scale. In clustered, easy (CE) conditions, the attended frequency was distinct, while the middle and extreme distractor tones were clustered together. In clustered, hard (CH) conditions, the attended frequency was clustered with one of the distractors. The subjects pressed a button in response to occasional target tones of longer duration at a prespecified frequency. The subjects were faster and more accurate in CE conditions than they were in ES conditions, and ERP attention effects were enhanced in amplitude in CE conditions. Conversely, the subjects were slower and less accurate in CH conditions and ERP attention effects were delayed in latency and decreased in amplitude. Clustering effects suggest that the processing of stimuli belonging to the attended stream was promoted and the processing of those falling outside the stream was inhibited. The timing and scalp distribution of clustering-related changes in ERPs suggest that clustering modulates early sensory processing in auditory cortex.