Hemispheric lateralization for early auditory processing of lexical tones: Dependence on pitch level and pitch contour

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In Mandarin Chinese, a tonal language, pitch level and pitch contour are two dimensions of lexical tones according to their acoustic features (i.e., pitch patterns). A change in pitch level features a step change whereas that in pitch contour features a continuous variation in voice pitch. Currently, relatively little is known about the hemispheric lateralization for the processing of each dimension. To address this issue, we made whole-head electrical recordings of mismatch negativity in native Chinese speakers in response to the contrast of Chinese lexical tones in each dimension. We found that pre-attentive auditory processing of pitch level was obviously lateralized to the right hemisphere whereas there is a tendency for that of pitch contour to be lateralized to the left. We also found that the brain responded faster to pitch level than to pitch contour at a pre-attentive stage. These results indicate that the hemispheric lateralization for early auditory processing of lexical tones depends on the pitch level and pitch contour, and suggest an underlying inter-hemispheric interactive mechanism for the processing.

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