skip to main content

Title: Tuning Attention to Object Categories: Spatially Global Effects of Attention to Faces in Visual Processing
Feature-based attention is known to enhance visual processing globally across the visual field, even at task-irrelevant locations. Here, we asked whether attention to object categories, in particular faces, shows similar location-independent tuning. Using EEG, we measured the face-selective N170 component of the EEG signal to examine neural responses to faces at task-irrelevant locations while participants attended to faces at another task-relevant location. Across two experiments, we found that visual processing of faces was amplified at task-irrelevant locations when participants attended to faces relative to when participants attended to either buildings or scrambled face parts. The fact that we see this enhancement with the N170 suggests that these attentional effects occur at the earliest stage of face processing. Two additional behavioral experiments showed that it is easier to attend to the same object category across the visual field relative to two distinct categories, consistent with object-based attention spreading globally. Together, these results suggest that attention to high-level object categories shows similar spatially global effects on visual processing as attention to simple, individual, low-level features.
; ;
Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
937 to 947
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. When objects from two categories of expertise (e.g., faces and cars in dual car/face experts) are processed simultaneously, competition occurs across a variety of tasks. Here, we investigate whether competition between face and car processing also occurs during ensemble coding. The relationship between single object recognition and ensemble coding is debated, but if ensemble coding relies on the same ability as object recognition, we expect cars to interfere with ensemble coding of faces as a function of car expertise. We measured the ability to judge the variability in identity of arrays of faces, in the presence of task irrelevant distractors (cars or novel objects). On each trial, participants viewed two sequential arrays containing four faces and four distractors, judging which array was the more diverse in terms of face identity. We measured participants’ car expertise, object recognition ability, and face recognition ability. Using Bayesian statistics, we found evidence against competition as a function of car expertise during ensemble coding of faces. Face recognition ability predicted ensemble judgments for faces, regardless of the category of task-irrelevant distractors. The result suggests that ensemble coding is not susceptible to competition between different domains of similar expertise, unlike single-object recognition.
  2. Humans demonstrate enhanced processing of human faces compared with animal faces, known as own-species bias. This bias is important for identifying people who may cause harm, as well as for recognizing friends and kin. However, growing evidence also indicates a more general face bias. Faces have high evolutionary importance beyond conspecific interactions, as they aid in detecting predators and prey. Few studies have explored the interaction of these biases together. In three experiments, we explored processing of human and animal faces, compared with each other and to nonface objects, which allowed us to examine both own-species and broader face biases. We used a dot-probe paradigm to examine human adults’ covert attentional biases for task-irrelevant human faces, animal faces, and objects. We replicated the own-species attentional bias for human faces relative to animal faces. We also found an attentional bias for animal faces relative to objects, consistent with the proposal that faces broadly receive privileged processing. Our findings suggest that humans may be attracted to a broad class of faces. Further, we found that while participants rapidly attended to human faces across all cue display durations, they attended to animal faces only when they had sufficient time to process them. Ourmore »findings reveal that the dot-probe paradigm is sensitive for capturing both own-species and more general face biases, and that each has a different attentional signature, possibly reflecting their unique but overlapping evolutionary importance.« less
  3. Voice pitch carries linguistic as well as non-linguistic information. Previous studies have described cortical tracking of voice pitch in clean speech, with responses reflecting both pitch strength and pitch value. However, pitch is also a powerful cue for auditory stream segregation, especially when competing streams have pitch differing in fundamental frequency, as is the case when multiple speakers talk simultaneously. We therefore investigated how cortical speech pitch tracking is affected in the presence of a second, task-irrelevant speaker. We analyzed human magnetoencephalography (MEG) responses to continuous narrative speech, presented either as a single talker in a quiet background, or as a two-talker mixture of a male and a female speaker. In clean speech, voice pitch was associated with a right-dominant response, peaking at a latency of around 100 ms, consistent with previous EEG and ECoG results. The response tracked both the presence of pitch as well as the relative value of the speaker’s fundamental frequency. In the two-talker mixture, pitch of the attended speaker was tracked bilaterally, regardless of whether or not there was simultaneously present pitch in the speech of the irrelevant speaker. Pitch tracking for the irrelevant speaker was reduced: only the right hemisphere still significantly tracked pitchmore »of the unattended speaker, and only during intervals in which no pitch was present in the attended talker’s speech. Taken together, these results suggest that pitch-based segregation of multiple speakers, at least as measured by macroscopic cortical tracking, is not entirely automatic but strongly dependent on selective attention.« less
  4. Category learning is fundamental to cognition, but little is known about how it proceeds in real-world environments when learners do not have instructions to search for category-relevant information, do not make overt category decisions, and do not experience direct feedback. Prior research demonstrates that listeners can acquire task-irrelevant auditory categories incidentally as they engage in primarily visuomotor tasks. The current study examines the factors that support this incidental category learning. Three experiments systematically manipulated the relationship of four novel auditory categories with a consistent visual feature (color or location) that informed a simple behavioral keypress response regarding the visual feature. In both an in-person experiment and two online replications with extensions, incidental auditory category learning occurred reliably when category exemplars consistently aligned with visuomotor demands of the primary task, but not when they were misaligned. The presence of an additional irrelevant visual feature that was uncorrelated with the primary task demands neither enhanced nor harmed incidental learning. By contrast, incidental learning did not occur when auditory categories were aligned consistently with one visual feature, but the motor response in the primary task was aligned with another, category-unaligned visual feature. Moreover, category learning did not reliably occur across passive observation ormore »when participants made a category-nonspecific, generic motor response. These findings show that incidental learning of categories is strongly mediated by the character of coincident behavior.« less
  5. People can relatively easily report summary properties for ensembles of objects, suggesting that this information can enrich visual experience and increase the efficiency of perceptual processing. Here, we ask whether the ability to judge diversity within object arrays improves with experience. We surmised that ensemble judgments would be more accurate for commonly experienced objects, and perhaps even more for objects of expertise like faces. We also expected improvements in ensemble processing with practice with a novel category, and perhaps even more with repeated experience with specific exemplars. We compared the effect of experience on diversity judgments for arrays of objects, with participants being tested with either a small number of repeated exemplars or with a large number of exemplars from the same object category. To explore the role of more prolonged experience, we tested participants with completely novel objects (random-blobs), with objects familiar at the category level (cars), and with objects with which observers are experts at subordinate-level recognition (faces). For objects that are novel, participants showed evidence of improved ability to distribute attention. In contrast, for object categories with long-term experience, i.e., faces and cars, performance improved during the experiment but not necessarily due to improved ensemble processing. Practicemore »with specific exemplars did not result in better diversity judgments for all object categories. Considered together, these results suggest that ensemble processing improves with experience. However, the role of experience is rapid, does not rely on exemplar-level knowledge and may not benefit from subordinate-level expertise.« less