Encoding of deterministic and stochastic auditory rules in the human brain: The mismatch negativity mechanism does not reflect basic probability.
Abstract Regularities in a sequence of sounds can be automatically encoded in a predictive model by the auditory system. When a sound deviates from the one predicted by the model, a mismatch negativity (MMN) is elicited, which is taken to reflect a prediction error at a particular level of the model hierarchy. Although there are many studies on deterministic regularities, only a few have investigated the brain's ability to encode non-deterministic regularities. We studied a simple stochastic regularity: two tone pitches (standards, each occurring on 45% of trials); this regularity was occasionally violated by another tone pitch (deviant, occurring on 10% of trials). We found MMN when the deviant's pitch was outside those of the standards, but not when it was between them. Importantly, when we alternated the occurrence of the same two standards, making them deterministic, the deviant elicited MMN, even when its pitch was between those of the standards. Thus, although the MMN system is extremely powerful in establishing even quite complex deterministic regularities, it fails with a simple stochastic regularity. We argue that the MMN system does not know basic probability.