Motor representations of articulators contribute to categorical perception of speech sounds.
Möttönen R., Watkins KE.
Listening to speech modulates activity in human motor cortex. It is unclear, however, whether the motor cortex has an essential role in speech perception. Here, we aimed to determine whether the motor representations of articulators contribute to categorical perception of speech sounds. Categorization of continuously variable acoustic signals into discrete phonemes is a fundamental feature of speech communication. We used repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to temporarily disrupt the lip representation in the left primary motor cortex. This disruption impaired categorical perception of artificial acoustic continua ranging between two speech sounds that differed in place of articulation, in that the vocal tract is opened and closed rapidly either with the lips or the tip of the tongue (/ba/-/da/ and /pa/-/ta/). In contrast, it did not impair categorical perception of continua ranging between speech sounds that do not involve the lips in their articulation (/ka/-/ga/ and /da/-/ga/). Furthermore, an rTMS-induced disruption of the hand representation had no effect on categorical perception of either of the tested continua (/ba/-da/ and /ka/-/ga/). These findings indicate that motor circuits controlling production of speech sounds also contribute to their perception. Mapping acoustically highly variable speech sounds onto less variable motor representations may facilitate their phonemic categorization and be important for robust speech perception.