Language outside the focus of attention: the mismatch negativity as a tool for studying higher cognitive processes

Prog Neurobiol. 2006 May;79(1):49-71. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2006.04.004. Epub 2006 Jun 30.


Which aspects of language and cognitive processing take place irrespective of whether subjects focus their attention on incoming stimuli and are, in this sense, automatic? The Mismatch Negativity (MMN), a neurophysiological brain response recorded in the EEG and MEG, is elicited by attended and unattended stimuli alike. Recent studies investigating the cognitive processes underlying spoken language processing found that even under attentional withdrawal, MMN size and topography reflect the activation of memory traces for language elements in the human brain. Familiar sounds of one's native language elicit a larger MMN than unfamiliar sounds, and at the level of meaningful language units, words elicit a larger MMN than meaningless pseudowords. This suggests that the MMN reflects the activation of memory networks for language sounds and spoken words. Unattended word stimuli elicit an activation sequence starting in superior-temporal cortex and rapidly progressing to left-inferior-frontal lobe. The spatio-temporal patterns of cortical activation depend on lexical and semantic properties of word stems and affixes, thus indicating that the MMN can give clues about lexico-semantic information processing stored in long term memory. At the syntactic level, MMN size was found to reflect whether a word string conforms to abstract grammatical rules. This growing body of results suggests that lexical, semantic and syntactic information can be processed by the central nervous system outside the focus of attention in a largely automatic manner. Analysis of spatio-temporal patterns of generator activations underlying the MMN to speech may be an important tool for investigating the brain dynamics of spoken language processing and the activated distributed cortical circuits acting at long-term memory traces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods*
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Magnetoencephalography / methods
  • Speech / physiology*