Theta band oscillations reflect more than entrainment: behavioral and neural evidence demonstrates an active chunking process

Xiangbin Teng, Xing Tian, Keith Doelling, David Poeppel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Parsing continuous acoustic streams into perceptual units is fundamental to auditory perception. Previous studies have uncovered a cortical entrainment mechanism in the delta and theta bands (~1–8 Hz) that correlates with formation of perceptual units in speech, music, and other quasi-rhythmic stimuli. Whether cortical oscillations in the delta-theta bands are passively entrained by regular acoustic patterns or play an active role in parsing the acoustic stream is debated. Here, we investigate cortical oscillations using novel stimuli with 1/f modulation spectra. These 1/f signals have no rhythmic structure but contain information over many timescales because of their broadband modulation characteristics. We chose 1/f modulation spectra with varying exponents of f, which simulate the dynamics of environmental noise, speech, vocalizations, and music. While undergoing magnetoencephalography (MEG) recording, participants listened to 1/f stimuli and detected embedded target tones. Tone detection performance varied across stimuli of different exponents and can be explained by local signal-to-noise ratio computed using a temporal window around 200 ms. Furthermore, theta band oscillations, surprisingly, were observed for all stimuli, but robust phase coherence was preferentially displayed by stimuli with exponents 1 and 1.5. We constructed an auditory processing model to quantify acoustic information on various timescales and correlated the model outputs with the neural results. We show that cortical oscillations reflect a chunking of segments, > 200 ms. These results suggest an active auditory segmentation mechanism, complementary to entrainment, operating on a timescale of ~200 ms to organize acoustic information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2770-2782
Number of pages13
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number8
StatePublished - Oct 2018


  • MEG analysis
  • auditory perception
  • auditory system
  • oscillation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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