The Role of High-Level Processes for Oscillatory Phase Entrainment to Speech Sound

Front Hum Neurosci. 2015 Dec 2:9:651. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00651. eCollection 2015.


Constantly bombarded with input, the brain has the need to filter out relevant information while ignoring the irrelevant rest. A powerful tool may be represented by neural oscillations which entrain their high-excitability phase to important input while their low-excitability phase attenuates irrelevant information. Indeed, the alignment between brain oscillations and speech improves intelligibility and helps dissociating speakers during a "cocktail party". Although well-investigated, the contribution of low- and high-level processes to phase entrainment to speech sound has only recently begun to be understood. Here, we review those findings, and concentrate on three main results: (1) Phase entrainment to speech sound is modulated by attention or predictions, likely supported by top-down signals and indicating higher-level processes involved in the brain's adjustment to speech. (2) As phase entrainment to speech can be observed without systematic fluctuations in sound amplitude or spectral content, it does not only reflect a passive steady-state "ringing" of the cochlea, but entails a higher-level process. (3) The role of intelligibility for phase entrainment is debated. Recent results suggest that intelligibility modulates the behavioral consequences of entrainment, rather than directly affecting the strength of entrainment in auditory regions. We conclude that phase entrainment to speech reflects a sophisticated mechanism: several high-level processes interact to optimally align neural oscillations with predicted events of high relevance, even when they are hidden in a continuous stream of background noise.

Keywords: EEG; auditory; entrainment; high-level; intelligibility; oscillation; phase; speech.

Publication types

  • Review