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J Acoust Soc Am. 1996 Aug;100(2 Pt 1):1111-21.

The perceptual magnet effect as an emergent property of neural map formation.

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Boston University, Center for Adaptive Systems, Massachusetts 02215, USA.


The perceptual magnet effect is one of the earliest known language-specific phenomena arising in infant speech development. The effect is characterized by a warping of perceptual space near phonemic category centers. Previous explanations have been formulated within the theoretical framework of cognitive psychology. The model proposed in this paper builds on research from both psychology and neuroscience in working toward a more complete account of the effect. The model embodies two principal hypotheses supported by considerable experimental and theoretical research from the neuroscience literature: (1) sensory experience guides language-specific development of an auditory neural map, and (2) a population vector can predict psychological phenomena based on map cell activities. These hypotheses are realized in a self-organizing neural network model. The magnet effect arises in the model from language-specific nonuniformities in the distribution of map cell firing preferences. Numerical simulations verify that the model captures the known general characteristics of the magnet effect and provides accurate fits to specific psychophysical data.

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