Auditory transients (such as sound onset or a frequency transition within a continuous sound) are assumed to parse the auditory input into smaller units enabling the formation of unitary sound representations separately for each segment. This was discovered by using the mismatch negativity (MMN) component of the event-related potential (ERP) that taps into auditory sensory memory representations. For unstructured sounds, MMN amplitude decreased or even vanished with increasing the temporal distance of an irregular feature (deviance, e.g. duration decrement) relative to the onset of an otherwise regularly occurring sound, whereas for sounds that were segmented by a transient, MMN persisted. It has been speculated that the P1-N1-P2 complex, indexing the sensory encoding of the transient, determines the temporal units of the acoustic input that are represented by the information processing system. To test this hypothesis, we utilized a previously reported asymmetry in the sensory encoding of physically identical but time-reversed transitions between segments of constant and gliding frequency. In separate blocks, we regularly presented 1400-ms sounds with a centered constant-to-glide or glide-to-constant transition. Occasionally and unpredictably, one of the regularly occurring sounds was shortened in duration to 910 ms. We found larger transition-related P1-N1-P2 potentials accompanied by larger deviance-related MMN amplitudes for sounds with constant-to-glide transition than for sounds with glide-to-constant transition. This provides evidence that it is the precise sensory encoding of the transition which is crucial for automatically parsing the auditory input into smaller units, thus enabling the formation of unitary sound representations even for late segments.
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