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Front Psychol. 2017 May 23;8:781. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00781. eCollection 2017.

Perceptual Plasticity for Auditory Object Recognition.

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Department of Psychology, The University of Chicago, ChicagoIL, United States.


In our auditory environment, we rarely experience the exact acoustic waveform twice. This is especially true for communicative signals that have meaning for listeners. In speech and music, the acoustic signal changes as a function of the talker (or instrument), speaking (or playing) rate, and room acoustics, to name a few factors. Yet, despite this acoustic variability, we are able to recognize a sentence or melody as the same across various kinds of acoustic inputs and determine meaning based on listening goals, expectations, context, and experience. The recognition process relates acoustic signals to prior experience despite variability in signal-relevant and signal-irrelevant acoustic properties, some of which could be considered as "noise" in service of a recognition goal. However, some acoustic variability, if systematic, is lawful and can be exploited by listeners to aid in recognition. Perceivable changes in systematic variability can herald a need for listeners to reorganize perception and reorient their attention to more immediately signal-relevant cues. This view is not incorporated currently in many extant theories of auditory perception, which traditionally reduce psychological or neural representations of perceptual objects and the processes that act on them to static entities. While this reduction is likely done for the sake of empirical tractability, such a reduction may seriously distort the perceptual process to be modeled. We argue that perceptual representations, as well as the processes underlying perception, are dynamically determined by an interaction between the uncertainty of the auditory signal and constraints of context. This suggests that the process of auditory recognition is highly context-dependent in that the identity of a given auditory object may be intrinsically tied to its preceding context. To argue for the flexible neural and psychological updating of sound-to-meaning mappings across speech and music, we draw upon examples of perceptual categories that are thought to be highly stable. This framework suggests that the process of auditory recognition cannot be divorced from the short-term context in which an auditory object is presented. Implications for auditory category acquisition and extant models of auditory perception, both cognitive and neural, are discussed.


auditory perception; categorization; dynamical systems; lack of invariance; music perception; perceptual constancy; short-term plasticity; speech perception

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