Event-Related Brain Potentials in Selective Listening to Frequent and Rare Stimuli


  • This research was supported by the Academy of Finland.

Address requests of reprints to: Dr. Kimmo Alho, Department of Psychology, University of Helsinki, Ritarikatu 5, 00170 Helsinki, Finland.


Our previous event-related brain potential (ERP) results suggest that during selective listening, relevant stimuli are selected for further processing by comparing each stimulus to an “attentional trace,” a neuronal representation of the physical features of the relevant stimuli that distinguish them from the irrelevant stimuli. This comparison process is reflected by the early component of the processing negativity (PN), which is largest and longest to the relevant stimuli (perfectly matching with the trace). In the present study, the subjects selectively listened to designated tone stimuli which randomly appeared among irrelevant tones of a different pitch. The probability of relevant stimuli in a block was varied. The processing negativity elicited by relevant stimuli was smaller the less frequent they were. The results support the attentional-trace theory of selective attention, which proposes that, in addition to active maintenance, the trace also depends on the rate of sensory reinforcement provided by the relevant stimuli.