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Psychol Sci. 2010 Oct;21(10):1532-40. doi: 10.1177/0956797610384142. Epub 2010 Oct 8.

Continuous perception and graded categorization: electrophysiological evidence for a linear relationship between the acoustic signal and perceptual encoding of speech.

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Department of Psychology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA.


Speech sounds are highly variable, yet listeners readily extract information from them and transform continuous acoustic signals into meaningful categories during language comprehension. A central question is whether perceptual encoding captures acoustic detail in a one-to-one fashion or whether it is affected by phonological categories. We addressed this question in an event-related potential (ERP) experiment in which listeners categorized spoken words that varied along a continuous acoustic dimension (voice-onset time, or VOT) in an auditory oddball task. We found that VOT effects were present through a late stage of perceptual processing (N1 component, ~100 ms poststimulus) and were independent of categorization. In addition, effects of within-category differences in VOT were present at a postperceptual categorization stage (P3 component, ~450 ms poststimulus). Thus, at perceptual levels, acoustic information is encoded continuously, independently of phonological information. Further, at phonological levels, fine-grained acoustic differences are preserved along with category information.

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