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Non-hexagonal neural dynamics in vowel space

1 SISSA–Cognitive Neuroscience, via Bonomea 265, 34136 Trieste, Italy
2 NTNU–Centre for Neural Computation, Trondheim, Norway

Topical Section: Neuronal Modeling/Theoretical Neuroscience

Are the grid cells discovered in rodents relevant to human cognition? Following up on two seminal studies by others, we aimed to check whether an approximate 6-fold, grid-like symmetry shows up in the cortical activity of humans who “navigate” between vowels, given that vowel space can be approximated with a continuous trapezoidal 2D manifold, spanned by the first and second formant frequencies. We created 30 vowel trajectories in the assumedly flat central portion of the trapezoid. Each of these trajectories had a duration of 240 milliseconds, with a steady start and end point on the perimeter of a “wheel”. We hypothesized that if the neural representation of this “box” is similar to that of rodent grid units, there should be an at least partial hexagonal (6-fold) symmetry in the EEG response of participants who navigate it. We have not found any dominant n-fold symmetry, however, but instead, using PCAs, we find indications that the vowel representation may reflect phonetic features, as positioned on the vowel manifold. The suggestion, therefore, is that vowels are encoded in relation to their salient sensory-perceptual variables, and are not assigned to arbitrary grid- like abstract maps. Finally, we explored the relationship between the first PCA eigenvector and putative vowel attractors for native Italian speakers, who served as the subjects in our study.
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Keywords grid cells; vowel space; formants; hexagonal symmetry; EEG; diphthongs

Citation: Zeynep Kaya, Mohammadreza Soltanipour, Alessandro Treves. Non-hexagonal neural dynamics in vowel space. AIMS Neuroscience, 2020, 7(3): 275-298. doi: 10.3934/Neuroscience.2020015

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