Neural Responses and Perceptual Sensitivity to Sound Depend on Sound-Level Statistics
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© 2020, The Author(s). Sensitivity to sound-level statistics is crucial for optimal perception, but research has focused mostly on neurophysiological recordings, whereas behavioral evidence is sparse. We use electroencephalography (EEG) and behavioral methods to investigate how sound-level statistics affect neural activity and the detection of near-threshold changes in sound amplitude. We presented noise bursts with sound levels drawn from distributions with either a low or a high modal sound level. One participant group listened to the stimulation while EEG was recorded (Experiment I). A second group performed a behavioral amplitude-modulation detection task (Experiment II). Neural activity depended on sound-level statistical context in two different ways. Consistent with an account positing that the sensitivity of neurons to sound intensity adapts to ambient sound level, responses for higher-intensity bursts were larger in low-mode than high-mode contexts, whereas responses for lower-intensity bursts did not differ between contexts. In contrast, a concurrent slow neural response indicated prediction-error processing: The response was larger for bursts at intensities that deviated from the predicted statistical context compared to those not deviating. Behavioral responses were consistent with prediction-error processing, but not with neural adaptation. Hence, neural activity adapts to sound-level statistics, but fine-tuning of perceptual sensitivity appears to involve neural prediction-error responses.