Does our perceptual awareness consist of a continuous stream, or a discrete sequence of perceptual cycles, possibly associated with the rhythmic structure of brain activity? This has been a long-standing question in neuroscience. We review recent psychophysical and electrophysiological studies indicating that part of our visual awareness proceeds in approximately 7-13 Hz cycles rather than continuously. On the other hand, experimental attempts at applying similar tools to demonstrate the discreteness of auditory awareness have been largely unsuccessful. We argue and demonstrate experimentally that visual and auditory perception are not equally affected by temporal subsampling of their respective input streams: video sequences remain intelligible at sampling rates of two to three frames per second, whereas audio inputs lose their fine temporal structure, and thus all significance, below 20-30 samples per second. This does not mean, however, that our auditory perception must proceed continuously. Instead, we propose that audition could still involve perceptual cycles, but the periodic sampling should happen only after the stage of auditory feature extraction. In addition, although visual perceptual cycles can follow one another at a spontaneous pace largely independent of the visual input, auditory cycles may need to sample the input stream more flexibly, by adapting to the temporal structure of the auditory inputs.
Keywords: brain rhythms; discrete perception; perceptual cycles; perceptual sampling; sampling rate; speech processing.