Neural representation of consciously imperceptible speech sound differences
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The concept of subliminal perception has been a subject of interest and controversy for decades. Of interest in the present investigation was whether a neurophysiologic index of stimulus change could be elicited to speech sound contrasts that were consciously indiscriminable. The stimuli were chosen on the basis of each individual subject’s discrimination threshold. The speech stimuli (which varied along anF3 onset frequency continuum from /da/ to /ga/) were synthesized so that the acoustical properties of the stimuli could be tightly controlled. Subthreshold and suprathreshold stimuli were chosen on the basis of behavioral ability demonstrated during psychophysical testing. A significant neural representation of stimulus change, reflected by the mismatch negativity response, was obtained in all but 1 subject in response to subthreshold stimuli. Grand average responses differed significantly from responses obtained in a control condition consisting of physiologic responses elicited by physically identical stimuli. Furthermore, responses to suprathreshold stimuli (close to threshold) did not differ significantly from subthreshold responses with respect to latency, amplitude, or area. These results suggest that neural representation of consciously imperceptible stimulus differences occurs and that this representation occurs at a preattentive level.