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Curr Biol. 2007 Dec 4;17(23):2067-72. Epub 2007 Nov 8.

Category selectivity in the ventral visual pathway confers robustness to clutter and diverted attention.

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McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.


Are objects coded by a small number of neurons or cortical regions that respond preferentially to the object in question, or by more distributed patterns of responses, including neurons or regions that respond only weakly? Distributed codes can represent a larger number of alternative items than sparse codes but produce ambiguities when multiple items are represented simultaneously (the "superposition" problem). Recent studies found category information in the distributed pattern of response across the ventral visual pathway, including in regions that do not "prefer" the object in question. However, these studies measured neural responses to isolated objects, a situation atypical of real-world vision, where multiple objects are usually present simultaneously ("clutter"). We report that information in the spatial pattern of fMRI response about standard object categories is severely disrupted by clutter and eliminated when attention is diverted. However, information about preferred categories in category-specific regions is undiminished by clutter and partly preserved under diverted attention. These findings indicate that in natural conditions, the pattern of fMRI response provides robust category information only for objects coded in selective cortical regions and highlight the vulnerability of distributed representations to clutter and the advantages of sparse cortical codes in mitigating clutter costs.

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