The role of attention and explicit knowledge in perceiving bistable auditory input

Kelin M. Brace, Elyse S. Sussman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The auditory system frequently encounters ambiguous sound input that can be perceived in multiple ways. The current study investigated the role of explicit knowledge in modulating how sounds are represented in auditory memory for a bistable sound sequence that could be perceived equally as integrated or segregated. We hypothesized that the dominant percept of the bistable sequence would suppress representation of the alternative perceptual organization as a function of how much top-down knowledge the listener had about the structure of the sequence. Performance measures and event-related brain potentials were compared when participants had explicit knowledge about one perceptual organization in the first half of the experiment to when they had explicit knowledge of both in the second half. We hypothesized that knowledge would modify the brain response to the alternative percept of the bistable sequence. However, that did not occur. When participants were performing one task, with no explicit knowledge of the bistable structure of the sequence, both integrated and segregated percepts were represented in auditory working memory. This demonstrates that explicit knowledge about the sounds is not a necessary factor for deriving and maintaining representations of multiple sound organizations within a complex sound environment. Passive attention operates in parallel with active or selective attention to maintain consistent representations of the environment, representations that may or may not be useful for task performance. It suggests a highly adaptive system useful in everyday listening situations where the listener has no prior knowledge about how the sound environment is structured.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13875
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • attention
  • auditory perception
  • bistable stimuli
  • event-related potentials
  • mismatch negativity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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