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Publication Detail
Sustained pupil responses are modulated by predictability of auditory sequences
The brain is highly sensitive to auditory regularities and exploits the predictable order of sounds in many situations, from parsing complex auditory scenes, to the acquisition of language. To understand the impact of stimulus predictability on perception, it is important to determine how the detection of predictable structure influences processing and attention. Here we use pupillometry to gain insight into the effect of sensory regularity on arousal. Pupillometry is a commonly used measure of salience and processing effort, with more perceptually salient or perceptually demanding stimuli consistently associated with larger pupil diameters.In two experiments we tracked human listeners' pupil dynamics while they listened to sequences of 50ms tone pips of different frequencies. The order of the tone pips was either random, contained deterministic (fully predictable) regularities (experiment 1, n = 18, 11 female) or had a probabilistic regularity structure (experiment 2, n = 20, 17 female). The sequences were rapid, preventing conscious tracking of sequence structure thus allowing us to focus on the automatic extraction of different types of regularities. We hypothesized that if regularity facilitates processing by reducing processing demands, a smaller pupil diameter would be seen in response to regular relative to random patterns. Conversely, if regularity is associated with heightened arousal and attention (i.e. engages processing resources) the opposite pattern would be expected. In both experiments we observed a smaller sustained (tonic) pupil diameter for regular compared with random sequences, consistent with the former hypothesis and confirming that predictability facilitates sequence processing.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTThe brain is highly sensitive to auditory regularities. To appreciate the impact that the presence of predictability has on perception, we need to better understand how a predictable structure influences processing and attention. We recorded listeners' pupil responses to sequences of tones that followed either a predictable or unpredictable pattern, as the pupil can be used to implicitly tap into these different cognitive processes. We found that the pupil showed a smaller sustained diameter to predictable sequences, indicating that predictability eased processing rather than boosted attention. The findings suggest that the pupil response can be used to study the automatic extraction of regularities, and that the effects are most consistent with predictability helping the listener to efficiently process upcoming sounds.
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