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Bria Long, Viola S. Störmer, George A. Alvarez; Mid-level perceptual features contain early cues to animacy. Journal of Vision 2017;17(6):20. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/17.6.20.
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While substantial work has focused on how the visual system achieves basic-level recognition, less work has asked about how it supports large-scale distinctions between objects, such as animacy and real-world size. Previous work has shown that these dimensions are reflected in our neural object representations (Konkle & Caramazza, 2013), and that objects of different real-world sizes have different mid-level perceptual features (Long, Konkle, Cohen, & Alvarez, 2016). Here, we test the hypothesis that animates and manmade objects also differ in mid-level perceptual features. To do so, we generated synthetic images of animals and objects that preserve some texture and form information (“texforms”), but are not identifiable at the basic level. We used visual search efficiency as an index of perceptual similarity, as search is slower when targets are perceptually similar to distractors. Across three experiments, we find that observers can find animals faster among objects than among other animals, and vice versa, and that these results hold when stimuli are reduced to unrecognizable texforms. Electrophysiological evidence revealed that this mixed-animacy search advantage emerges during early stages of target individuation, and not during later stages associated with semantic processing. Lastly, we find that perceived curvature explains part of the mixed-animacy search advantage and that observers use perceived curvature to classify texforms as animate/inanimate. Taken together, these findings suggest that mid-level perceptual features, including curvature, contain cues to whether an object may be animate versus manmade. We propose that the visual system capitalizes on these early cues to facilitate object detection, recognition, and classification.
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