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Psychol Sci. 2010 May;21(5):682-91. doi: 10.1177/0956797610366099. Epub 2010 Mar 23.

Conceptual penetration of visual processing.

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  • 1Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania, 3401 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. lupyan@sas.upenn.edu


In traditional hierarchical models of information processing, visual representations feed into conceptual systems, but conceptual categories do not exert an influence on visual processing. We provide evidence, across four experiments, that conceptual information can in fact penetrate early visual processing, rather than merely biasing the output of perceptual systems. Participants performed physical-identity judgments on visually equidistant pairs of letter stimuli that were either in the same conceptual category (Bb) or in different categories (Bp). In the case of nonidentical letters, response times were longer when the stimuli were from the same conceptual category, but only when the letters were presented sequentially. The differences in effect size between simultaneous and sequential trials rules out a decision-level account. An additional experiment using animal silhouettes replicated the major effects found with letters. Thus, performance on an explicitly visual task was influenced by conceptual categories. This effect depended on processing time, immediately preceding experience, and stimulus typicality, which suggests that it was produced by the direct influence of category knowledge on perception, rather than by a postperceptual decision bias.

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