Study aims to understand how, when the auditory system registers complex auditory-visual synchrony

October 23, 2013

Imagine the brain's delight when experiencing the sounds of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" while simultaneously taking in a light show produced by a visualizer.

A new Northwestern University study did much more than that.

To understand how the responds to highly complex auditory-visual stimuli like music and moving images, the study tracked parts of the auditory system involved in the perceptual processing of "Moonlight Sonata" while it was synchronized with the light show made by the iTunes Jelly visualizer.

The study shows how and when the encodes auditory-visual synchrony between complex and changing sounds and images.

Much of related research looks at how the brain processes simple sounds and images. Locating a woodpecker in a tree, for example, is made easier when your brain combines the auditory (pecking) and visual (movement of the bird) streams and judges that they are synchronous. If they are, the brain decides that the two sensory inputs probably came from a single source.

While that research is important, Julia Mossbridge, lead author of the study and research associate in psychology at Northwestern, said it also is critical to expand investigations to highly complex stimuli like music and movies.

"These kinds of things are closer to what the brain actually has to manage to process in every moment of the day," she said. "Further, it's important to determine how and when sensory systems choose to combine stimuli across their boundaries.

"If someone's brain is mis-wired, sensory information could combine when it's not appropriate," she said. "For example, when that person is listening to a teacher talk while looking out a window at kids playing, and the auditory and visual streams are integrated instead of separated, this could result in confusion and misunderstanding about which go with what experience."

It was already known that the left auditory cortex is specialized to process sounds with precise, complex and rapid timing; this gift for auditory timing may be one reason that in most people, the left auditory cortex is used to process speech, for which timing is critical. The results of this study show that this specialization for timing applies not just to sounds, but to the timing of complex and dynamic sounds and images.

Previous research indicates that there are multi-sensory areas in the brain that link sounds and images when they change in similar ways, but much of this research is focused particularly on speech signals (e.g., lips moving as vowels and consonants are heard). Consequently, it hasn't been clear what areas of the brain process more general auditory-visual synchrony or how this processing differs when sounds and images should not be combined.

"It appears that the brain is exploiting the left 's gift at processing auditory timing, and is using similar mechanisms to encode auditory-visual synchrony, but only in certain situations; seemingly only when combining the sounds and images is appropriate," Mossbridge said.

Explore further: Unraveling the mysteries of the maternal brain: Odors influence the response to sounds

More information: The article "Seeing the song: Left auditory structures may track auditory-visual dynamic alignment" will appear Oct. 23 in PLOS ONE:

Related Stories

Multisensory integration: When correlation implies causation

December 15, 2011

In order to get a better picture of our surroundings, the brain has to integrate information from different senses, but how does it know which signals to combine? New research involving scientists from the Max Planck Institute ...

Getting an expected award music to the brain's ears

September 25, 2013

Several studies have shown that expecting a reward or punishment can affect brain activity in areas responsible for processing different senses, including sight or touch. For example, research shows that these brain regions ...

Recommended for you

Wiring rules untangle brain circuitry

December 1, 2015

Our brains contain billions of neurons linked through trillions of synaptic connections, and although disentangling this wiring may seem like mission impossible, a research team from Baylor College of Medicine took on the ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.