In this study, we investigated brain mechanisms for the generation of subjective experience from objective sensory inputs. Our experimental construct was subjective tranquility. Tranquility is a mental state more likely to occur in the presence of objective sensory inputs that arise from natural features in the environment. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the neural response to scenes that were visually distinct (beach images vs. freeway images) and experienced as tranquil (beach) or non-tranquil (freeway). Both sets of scenes had the same auditory component because waves breaking on a beach and vehicles moving on a freeway can produce similar auditory spectral and temporal characteristics, perceived as a constant roar. Compared with scenes experienced as non-tranquil, we found that subjectively tranquil scenes were associated with significantly greater effective connectivity between the auditory cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, a region implicated in the evaluation of mental states. Similarly enhanced connectivity was also observed between the auditory cortex and posterior cingulate gyrus, temporoparietal cortex and thalamus. These findings demonstrate that visual context can modulate connectivity of the auditory cortex with regions implicated in the generation of subjective states. Importantly, this effect arises under conditions of identical auditory input. Hence, the same sound may be associated with different percepts reflecting varying connectivity between the auditory cortex and other brain regions. This suggests that subjective experience is more closely linked to the connectivity state of the auditory cortex than to its basic sensory inputs.
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