The perception of speech sounds by the human brain as reflected by the mismatch negativity (MMN) and its magnetic equivalent (MMNm)


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The present article outlines the contribution of the mismatch negativity (MMN), and its magnetic equivalent MMNm, to our understanding of the perception of speech sounds in the human brain. MMN data indicate that each sound, both speech and nonspeech, develops its neural representation corresponding to the percept of this sound in the neurophysiological substrate of auditory sensory memory. The accuracy of this representation, determining the accuracy of the discrimination between different sounds, can be probed with MMN separately for any auditory feature (e.g., frequency or duration) or stimulus type such as phonemes. Furthermore, MMN data show that the perception of phonemes, and probably also of larger linguistic units (syllables and words), is based on language-specific phonetic traces developed in the posterior part of the left-hemisphere auditory cortex. These traces serve as recognition models for the corresponding speech sounds in listening to speech. MMN studies further suggest that these language-specific traces for the mother tongue develop during the first few months of life. Moreover, MMN can also index the development of such traces for a foreign language learned later in life. MMN data have also revealed the existence of such neuronal populations in the human brain that can encode acoustic invariances specific to each speech sound, which could explain correct speech perception irrespective of the acoustic variation between the different speakers and word context.