Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Selective listening modifies activity of the human auditory cortex

  • 101 Accesses

  • 108 Citations


We have studied the effect of selective listening on the neuromagnetic evoked activity of the human auditory cortex. In the word categorization experiment the stimuli were 5-letter words, each beginning with /k/. Half of them were targets, i.e., names of animals or plants, and half other meaningful Finnish words. In the duration discrimination experiment equiprobable tones of 425 ms (targets) or 600 ms duration were presented. In both experiments the interstimulus interval (ISI) was 2.3 s and the stimuli of the two classes were presented randomly. Subjects either ignored the stimuli (reading condition) or counted the number of targets (listening condition). The magnetic field over the head was measured with a 7-channel 1st-order SQUID-gradiometer. The stimuli evoked a transient response followed by a sustained field. The transient response did not differ between the two conditions but the sustained field was significantly larger in the listening than reading condition; the increase began 120–200 ms after stimulus onset and continued for several hundred milliseconds. The equivalent source locations of both transient and sustained responses agreed with activation of the supratemporal auditory cortex. In the dichotic listening experiment 25-ms square-wave stimuli were presented randomly and equiprobably either to the left or to the right ear at an ISI of 0.8–1 s, either alone or in presence of a speech masker. Counting the stimuli of either ear resulted in differences between responses to relevant and irrelevant sounds. The difference began 140–150 ms after stimulus onset and peaked at 200–240 ms. During monaural speech masking, N100m was larger for attended than ignored stimuli. The results suggest that neural mechanisms underlying direction of attention include modification of the activity of the auditory cortex and that the mechanisms are similar for words and tones.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Alho K, Töttölä K, Reinikainen K, Sams M, Näätänen R (1987) Brain mechanisms of selective listening reflected by eventrelated potentials. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 68: 458–470

  2. Arthur DL, Flynn ER (1987) The effect of auditory selective attention on event-related magnetic fields of the human brain. 6th Internat Conf on Biomagnetism, Tokyo, (Abstract) pp 42–43

  3. Benson DA, Hienz RD (1978) Single-unit activity in the auditory cortex of monkeys selectively attending left vs. right ear stimuli. Brain Res 159: 307–320

  4. Creutzfeldt OD, Ojemann GA, Lettich E (1987) Single neuron activity in the right and left human temporal lobe during listening and speaking. In: Engel J, Ojemann GA, Lüders HO, Williamson PD (eds) Fundamental mechanisms of human brain function. Raven Press, New York, pp 69–81

  5. Elberling C, Bak C, Kofoed B, Lebech J, Saermark K (1981) Auditory magnetic fields from the human cortex: influence of stimulus intensity. Scand Audiol 10: 203–207

  6. Hari R, Ilmoniemi R (1986) Cerebral magnetic fields. CRC Crit Rev Biomed Eng 14: 93–126

  7. Hari R, Pelizzone M, Mäkelä JP, Hällström J, Leinonen L, Lounasmaa OV (1987) Neuromagnetic responses of the human auditory cortex to on-and off-sets of noise bursts. Audiology 26: 31–43

  8. Karjalainen M, Laine U, Toivonen R (1980) Aids for the handicapped based on “SYNTE 2” speech synthesizer. Proc IEEE Internat Conf on Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing 3: 851–854

  9. Kaukoranta E, Hari R, Lounasmaa OV (1987) Responses of the human auditory cortex to vowel onset after fricative consonants. Exp Brain Res 69: 19–23

  10. Kaufman L, Williamson S (1987) Recent developments in neuromagnetism. In: Barber C, Blum T (eds) Evoked potentials, III. Butterworths, Boston London, pp 110–113

  11. Knuutila J, Ahlfors S, Ahonen A, Hällström J, Kajola M, Lounasmaa OV (1987) Large-area low-noise seven-channel dc SQUID magnetometer for brain research. Rev Sci Instrum 58: 2145–2156

  12. Lovrich D, Novick B, Vaughan HG Jr (1988) Topographic analysis of auditory event-related potentials associated with acoustic and semantic processing. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 71: 40–54

  13. Näätänen R (1982) Processing negativity: an evoked-potential reflection of selective attention. Psychol Bull 92: 605–640

  14. Näätänen R, Michie PT (1979) Early selective attention effects on the evoked potential: a critical review and reinterpretation. Biol Psychol 8: 81–136

  15. Okita T, Konishi K, Inamori R (1983) Attention-related negative brain potential for speech words and pure tones. Biol Psychol 16: 29–47

  16. Skinner JE, Yingling CD (1977) Central gating mechanisms that regulate event-related potentials and behavior: a neural model for attention. In: Desmedt JE (ed) Attention, voluntary contraction and event-related cerebral potentials. (Prog Clin Neurophysiol, Vol 1). Karger, Basel, pp 30–69

  17. Schwent VL, Hillyard SA, Galambos R (1976) Selective attention and the auditory vertex potential. II. Effects of signal intensity and masking noise. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 40: 615–622

  18. Williamson S, Kaufman L (1981) Biomagnetism. J Magn Magn Mat 22: 129–202

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to R. Hari.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Hari, R., Hämäläinen, M., Kaukoranta, E. et al. Selective listening modifies activity of the human auditory cortex. Exp Brain Res 74, 463–470 (1989). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00247348

Download citation

Key words

  • Auditory cortex
  • Attention
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Speech sounds
  • Evoked responses
  • Processing negativity
  • Man