September 2011
Volume 11, Issue 11
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2011
Activation of visual information by verbal versus nonverbal cues
Author Affiliations
  • Gary Lupyan
    Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Journal of Vision September 2011, Vol.11, 831. doi:
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      Gary Lupyan; Activation of visual information by verbal versus nonverbal cues. Journal of Vision 2011;11(11):831. doi:

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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Responses to visual stimuli can be altered by cues presented prior to the target. These cues (or primes) can be nonverbal (e.g., an arrow, a color patch) or verbal (i.e., a written or spoken word). However, the possible differences produced by verbal and nonverbal cues on visual processing have been largely ignored. The present work directly compared the efficacy of verbal and nonverbal cues in evoking visual object representations (see also Lupyan & Thompson-Schill, 2010).

Participants completed a series of cue-to-picture matching tasks. Each trial began with an auditory cue and 1 s after cue-offset, a picture appeared that either matched the cue or not. Participants made speeded ‘match’ or ‘mis-match’ responses. A random half of the cues were verbal, e.g., “cat,” “bowling-ball,” “bee,” “car.” The remaining cues were nonverbal, e.g., a meowing sound, a bowling ball hitting pins, a buzzing bee, a car-honk. All cues were matched in length and offline norming ensured that cues were unambiguous. Yet, object recognition following verbal cues was faster and more accurate than following nonverbal cues. The mean reaction time (RT) difference ranged from 25–60 ms and remained unchanged even after extensive training on the task (>400 trials) with as few as 4 object categories.

The verbal cue advantage was significantly larger for pictures depicting objects in typical configurations compared to sound-evoking objects, e.g., a typical dog image versus a dog with an open jaw. This cue-by-image-type interaction was eliminated when high-spatial frequencies were removed from the images; this manipulation did not affect the overall label advantage. In addition, object categorization RTs following a verbal cue strongly correlated with typicality – a classic observation that more typical objects are classified faster. This correlation was absent on nonverbal-cue trials suggesting that verbal labels activate more typical visual object representations than those activated by nonverbal cues.


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