Echoes of the spoken past: how auditory cortex hears context during speech perception

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2014 Sep 19;369(1651):20130297. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0297.


What do we hear when someone speaks and what does auditory cortex (AC) do with that sound? Given how meaningful speech is, it might be hypothesized that AC is most active when other people talk so that their productions get decoded. Here, neuroimaging meta-analyses show the opposite: AC is least active and sometimes deactivated when participants listened to meaningful speech compared to less meaningful sounds. Results are explained by an active hypothesis-and-test mechanism where speech production (SP) regions are neurally re-used to predict auditory objects associated with available context. By this model, more AC activity for less meaningful sounds occurs because predictions are less successful from context, requiring further hypotheses be tested. This also explains the large overlap of AC co-activity for less meaningful sounds with meta-analyses of SP. An experiment showed a similar pattern of results for non-verbal context. Specifically, words produced less activity in AC and SP regions when preceded by co-speech gestures that visually described those words compared to those words without gestures. Results collectively suggest that what we 'hear' during real-world speech perception may come more from the brain than our ears and that the function of AC is to confirm or deny internal predictions about the identity of sounds.

Keywords: auditory; brain; context; language; multimodal; predictive.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Auditory Cortex / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Databases, Factual
  • Gestures*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Neuroimaging / methods*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*