Neural Microstates Govern Perception of Auditory Input without Rhythmic Structure

J Neurosci. 2016 Jan 20;36(3):860-71. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2191-15.2016.


Human perception fluctuates with the phase of neural oscillations in the presence of environmental rhythmic structure by which neural oscillations become entrained. However, in the absence of predictability afforded by rhythmic structure, we hypothesize that the neural dynamical states associated with optimal psychophysical performance are more complex than what has been described previously for rhythmic stimuli. The current electroencephalography study characterized the brain dynamics associated with optimal detection of gaps embedded in narrow-band acoustic noise stimuli lacking low-frequency rhythmic structure. Optimal gap detection was associated with three spectrotemporally distinct delta-governed neural microstates. Individual microstates were characterized by unique instantaneous combinations of neural phase in the delta, theta, and alpha frequency bands. Critically, gap detection was not predictable from local fluctuations in stimulus acoustics. The current results suggest that, in the absence of rhythmic structure to entrain neural oscillations, good performance hinges on complex neural states that vary from moment to moment. Significance statement: Our ability to hear faint sounds fluctuates together with slow brain activity that synchronizes with environmental rhythms. However, it is so far not known how brain activity at different time scales might interact to influence perception when there is no rhythm with which brain activity can synchronize. Here, we used electroencephalography to measure brain activity while participants listened for short silences that interrupted ongoing noise. We examined brain activity in three different frequency bands: delta, theta, and alpha. Participants' ability to detect gaps depended on different numbers of frequency bands--sometimes one, sometimes two, and sometimes three--at different times. Changes in the number of frequency bands that predict perception are a hallmark of a complex neural system.

Keywords: auditory perception; entrainment; neural microstates; neural oscillations; psychophysics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods*
  • Adult
  • Auditory Pathways / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Periodicity*
  • Young Adult