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You are here: McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind > Publications > Multisensory object perception in infancy: 4-month-olds perceive a mistuned harmonic as a separate auditory and visual object

Nicholas A Smith, Nicole A Folland, Diana M Martinez, and Laurel J Trainor (2017)

Multisensory object perception in infancy: 4-month-olds perceive a mistuned harmonic as a separate auditory and visual object

Cognition, 164:1-7.

Infants learn to use auditory and visual information to organize the sensory world into identifiable objects with particular locations. Here we use a behavioural method to examine infants’ use of harmonicity cues to auditory object perception in a multisensory context. Sounds emitted by different objects sum in the air and the auditory system must figure out which parts of the complex waveform belong to different sources (auditory objects). One important cue to this source separation is that complex tones with pitch typically contain a fundamental frequency and harmonics at integer multiples of the fundamental. Consequently, adults hear a mistuned harmonic in a complex sound as a distinct auditory object (Alain, Theunissen, Chevalier, Batty, & Taylor, 2003). Previous work by our group demonstrated that 4-monthold infants are also sensitive to this cue. They behaviourally discriminate a complex tone with a mistuned harmonic from the same complex with in-tune harmonics, and show an object-related event-related potential (ERP) electrophysiological (EEG) response to the stimulus with mistuned harmonics. In the present study we use an audiovisual procedure to investigate whether infants perceive a complex tone with an 8% mistuned harmonic as emanating from two objects, rather than merely detecting the mistuned cue. We paired in-tune and mistuned complex tones with visual displays that contained either one or two bouncing balls. Four-month-old infants showed surprise at the incongruous pairings, looking longer at the display of two balls when paired with the in-tune complex and at the display of one ball when paired with the mistuned harmonic complex. We conclude that infants use harmonicity as a cue for source separation when integrating auditory and visual information in object perception.

multi-sensory, auditory scene analysis