How we measure time and integrate temporal cues from different sensory modalities are fundamental questions in neuroscience. Sensitivity to a "beat" (such as that routinely perceived in music) differs substantially between auditory and visual modalities. Here we examined beat sensitivity in each modality, and examined cross-modal influences, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to characterize brain activity during perception of auditory and visual rhythms. In separate fMRI sessions, participants listened to auditory sequences or watched visual sequences. The order of auditory and visual sequence presentation was counterbalanced so that cross-modal order effects could be investigated. Participants judged whether sequences were speeding up or slowing down, and the pattern of tempo judgments was used to derive a measure of sensitivity to an implied beat. As expected, participants were less sensitive to an implied beat in visual sequences than in auditory sequences. However, visual sequences produced a stronger sense of beat when preceded by auditory sequences with identical temporal structure. Moreover, increases in brain activity were observed in the bilateral putamen for visual sequences preceded by auditory sequences when compared to visual sequences without prior auditory exposure. No such order-dependent differences (behavioral or neural) were found for the auditory sequences. The results provide further evidence for the role of the basal ganglia in internal generation of the beat and suggest that an internal auditory rhythm representation may be activated during visual rhythm perception.
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