Abstract for Keynote Speaker Berit Brogaard’s Presentation

Auditory Perception and Cognitive Penetration
Berit Brogaard
While much has been written about whether visual perception is cognitively penetrable, the analogous question with respect to auditory perception, in particular the auditory perception of language, has received little attention.

According to the hierarchical model of auditory information processing, sensory inputs are transmitted to higher-order cortical areas only after they are being processed in lower-order cortical areas. For example, auditory inputs are first processed in the primary auditory area A1 (a low-order cortical area) before being transmitted to superior, posterior, and lateral parts of the temporal lobes, which are involved in high-order auditory processing. On this model, auditory processing is primarily data-driven (bottom-up). However, recent findings indicate that feedback pathways carry higher-order information to antecedent cortical areas, which suggests a less hierarchical functional architecture of auditory processing, one that is primarily cognition-driven (top-down). For example, the sentence “The boat sailed down the river sank” is perfectly grammatical but this is difficult to hear until you come to realize that it means the boat that was sailed down the river by someone sank. The finding that audition is subject to top-down influences seems to threaten the cognitive impenetrability thesis (CIT), which has traditionally been understood  as a semantic thesis stating that the information a system computes is not sensitive (in a semantically-coherent way) to a subject’s cognitive states such as beliefs and cannot be altered in a way that bears some logical relation to the subject’s knowledge or reasons.

Here I argue that although auditory perception is subject to various forms of top-down influences, these influences are not instances of cognitive penetration of auditory perception, as the changes they may cause in the phenomenology of auditory experience are not due to the subject’s discursive thoughts. For example, John’s belief that Mary is smart does not make the sentence “The boat sailed down the river sank” sound grammatical, independently of knowledge of its meaning. So, while the auditory experience is subject to top-down influences, these influences are not cases of cognitive penetration.”

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