In vision, humans use summary statistics (e.g., the average facial expression of a crowd) to efficiently perceive the gist of groups of features. Here, we present direct evidence that ensemble coding is also important for auditory processing. We found that listeners could accurately estimate the mean frequency of a set of logarithmically spaced pure tones presented in a temporal sequence (Experiment 1). Their performance was severely reduced when only a subset of tones from a given sequence was presented (Experiment 2), which demonstrates that ensemble coding is based on a substantial number of the tones in a sequence. This precise ensemble coding occurred despite very limited representation of individual tones from the sequence: Listeners were poor at identifying specific individual member tones (Experiment 3) and at determining their positions in the sequence (Experiment 4). Together, these results indicate that summary statistical coding is not limited to visual processing and is an important auditory mechanism for extracting ensemble frequency information from sequences of sounds.
Keywords: auditory perception; ensemble coding; frequency; perception; statistical summary; visual perception.