Categorical Encoding of Vowels in Primary Auditory Cortex

Deborah F. Levy, Stephen M. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Speech perception involves mapping from a continuous and variable acoustic speech signal to discrete, linguistically meaningful units. However, it is unclear where in the auditory processing stream speech sound representations cease to be veridical (faithfully encoding precise acoustic properties) and become categorical (encoding sounds as linguistic categories). In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and multivariate pattern analysis to determine whether tonotopic primary auditory cortex (PAC), defined as tonotopic voxels falling within Heschl's gyrus, represents one class of speech sounds - vowels - veridically or categorically. For each of 15 participants, 4 individualized synthetic vowel stimuli were generated such that the vowels were equidistant in acoustic space, yet straddled a categorical boundary (with the first 2 vowels perceived as [i] and the last 2 perceived as [i]). Each participant's 4 vowels were then presented in a block design with an irrelevant but attention-demanding level change detection task. We found that in PAC bilaterally, neural discrimination between pairs of vowels that crossed the categorical boundary was more accurate than neural discrimination between equivalently spaced vowel pairs that fell within a category. These findings suggest that PAC does not represent vowel sounds veridically, but that encoding of vowels is shaped by linguistically relevant phonemic categories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)618-627
Number of pages10
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 21 2020


  • auditory pathway
  • hierarchical processing
  • multivariate pattern analysis
  • speech perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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