Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

The role of attention in auditory information processing as revealed by event-related potentials and other brain measures of cognitive function

Risto Näätänena1

a1 Department of Psychology, University of Helsinki, SF-00170 Helsinki, Finland, Electronic mail:


This article examines the role of attention and automaticity in auditory processing as revealed by event-related potential (ERP) research. An ERP component called the mismatch negativity, generated by the brain's automatic response to changes in repetitive auditory input, reveals that physical features of auditory stimuli are fully processed whether or not they are attended. It also suggests that there exist precise neuronal representations of the physical features of recent auditory stimuli, perhaps the traces underlying acoustic sensory (“echoic”) memory. A mechanism of passive attention switching in response to changes in repetitive input is also implicated.

Conscious perception of discrete acoustic stimuli might be mediated by some of the mechanisms underlying another ERP component (NI), one sensitive to stimulus onset and offset. Frequent passive attentional shifts might accountforthe effect cognitive psychologists describe as “the breakthrough of the unattended” (Broadbent 1982), that is, that even unattended stimuli may be semantically processed, without assuming automatic semantic processing or late selection in selective attention.

The processing negativity supports the early-selection theory and may arise from a mechanism for selectively attending to stimuli defined by certain features. This stimulus selection occurs in the form ofa matching process in which each input is compared with the “attentional trace,” a voluntarily maintained representation of the task-relevant features of the stimulus to be attended. The attentional mechanism described might underlie the stimulus-set mode of attention proposed by Broadbent. Finally, a model of automatic and attentional processing in audition is proposed that is based mainly on the aforementioned ERP components and some other physiological measures.