Orienting asymmetries and lateralized processing of sounds in humans
1 Research Group Cognitive Ethology, German Primate Center and University of Göttingen, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Göttingen, Germany
2 Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
3 Institute of Biology-II, University of Leipzig, Germany
4 Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Department of Neurology, Leipzig, Germany
5 Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research, Motor Cognition Group, Köln, Germany
BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:14 doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-14Published: 24 February 2009
Lateralized processing of speech is a well studied phenomenon in humans. Both anatomical and neurophysiological studies support the view that nonhuman primates and other animal species also reveal hemispheric differences in areas involved in sound processing. In recent years, an increasing number of studies on a range of taxa have employed an orienting paradigm to investigate lateralized acoustic processing. In this paradigm, sounds are played directly from behind and the direction of turn is recorded. This assay rests on the assumption that a hemispheric asymmetry in processing is coupled to an orienting bias towards the contralateral side. To examine this largely untested assumption, speech stimuli as well as artificial sounds were presented to 224 right-handed human subjects shopping in supermarkets in Germany and in the UK. To verify the lateralized processing of the speech stimuli, we additionally assessed the brain activation in response to presentation of the different stimuli using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
In the naturalistic behavioural experiments, there was no difference in orienting behaviour in relation to the stimulus material (speech, artificial sounds). Contrary to our predictions, subjects revealed a significant left bias, irrespective of the sound category. This left bias was slightly but not significantly stronger in German subjects. The fMRI experiments confirmed that the speech stimuli evoked a significant left lateralized activation in BA44 compared to the artificial sounds.
These findings suggest that in adult humans, orienting biases are not necessarily coupled with lateralized processing of acoustic stimuli. Our results – as well as the inconsistent orienting biases found in different animal species – suggest that the orienting assay should be used with caution. Apparently, attention biases, experience, and experimental conditions may all affect head turning responses. Because of the complexity of the interaction of factors, the use of the orienting assay to determine lateralized processing of sound stimuli is discouraged.