Speech perception requires the decoding of complex acoustic patterns. According to most cognitive models of spoken word recognition, this complexity is dealt with before lexical access via a process of abstraction from the acoustic signal to pre-lexical categories. It is currently unclear how these categories are implemented in the auditory cortex. Recent advances in animal neurophysiology and human functional imaging have made it possible to investigate the processing of speech in terms of probabilistic cortical maps rather than simple cognitive subtraction, which will enable us to relate neurometric data more directly to behavioural studies. We suggest that integration of insights from cognitive science, neurophysiology and functional imaging is necessary for furthering our understanding of pre-lexical abstraction in the cortex.