In early life auditory discrimination ability can be enhanced by passive sound exposure. In contrast, in adulthood passive exposure seems to be insufficient to promote discrimination ability, but this has been tested only with a single short exposure session in humans. We tested whether passive exposure to unfamiliar auditory stimuli can result in enhanced cortical discrimination ability and change detection in adult humans, and whether the possible learning effect generalizes to different stimuli. To address these issues, we exposed adult Finnish participants to Chinese lexical tones passively for 2 h per day on 4 consecutive days. Behavioral responses and the brain's event-related potentials (ERPs) were measured before and after the exposure for the same stimuli applied in the exposure phase and to sinusoidal sounds roughly mimicking the frequency contour in speech sounds. Passive exposure modulated the ERPs to speech sound changes in both ignore (mismatch negativity latency, P3a amplitude and P3a latency) and attend (P3b amplitude) test conditions, but not the behavioral responses. Furthermore, effect of passive exposure transferred to the processing of the sinusoidal sounds as indexed by the latency of the mismatch negativity. No corresponding effects in the ERPs were found in a control group that participated to the test measurements, but received no exposure to the sounds. The results show that passive exposure to foreign speech sounds in adulthood can enhance cortical discrimination ability and attention orientation toward changes in speech sounds and that the learning effect can transfer to non-speech sounds.
Keywords: Event-related potentials; Passive exposure; Perceptual learning; Speech sounds.
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