Preparatory attention incorporates contextual expectations
SourceCurrent Biology, (2021)
16 december 2021
Article / Letter to editor
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SW OZ DCC SMN
SubjectAction, intention, and motor control
Humans are remarkably proficient at finding objects within complex visual scenes. According to current theories of attention, visual processing of an object of interest is favored through the preparatory activation of object-specific representations in visual cortex. One key problem that is inherent to real-world visual search but is not accounted for by current theories is that a given object will produce a dramatically different retinal image depending on its location, which is unknown in advance. For instance, the color of the retinal image depends on the illumination on the object, its shape depends on the viewpoint, and (most critically) its size can vary by several orders of magnitude, depending on the distance to the observer. In order to benefit search, preparatory activity thus needs to incorporate contextual expectations. In the current study, we measured fMRI blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) activity in human observers while they prepared to search for objects at different distances in indoor-scene photographs. First, we established that observers instantiated preparatory object representations: activity patterns in object-selective cortex evoked during search preparation (while no objects were presented) resembled activity patterns evoked by viewing those objects in isolation. Second, we demonstrated that these preparatory object representations were systematically modulated by expectations derived from scene context: activity patterns reflected the predicted retinal image of the object at each distance (i.e., distant search evoking smaller object representations and nearby search evoking larger object representations). These findings reconcile current theories of attentional selection with the challenges of real-world vision.
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