Evidence from a new study published in PLOS Computational Biology by researchers from Brown University and led by Assistant Professor Thomas Serre suggests that when we analyze scenery we simply make the easiest judgments first, rather than following a priority order of categories.
There are many ways we understand scenery. Is it navigable or obstructed? Natural or human-made? A face or not a face? In previous experiments, researchers have found that some categorization tasks seem special, in that they occur earlier than others, leading to a hypothesis that the brain has a prescribed set of priorities. One example of this, the "superordinate advantage," holds that people will first sort out global properties of a scene or "superordinate" categorization before analyzing more specific properties or "basic" categorization. Judging "indoor vs. outdoor," the hypothesis goes, not only does happen before "kitchen vs. bathroom," but also must happen beforehand.
To check that assumption, Serre and colleagues iterated upon a standard computational model that could reliably rate the "discriminability" of scenery, or how easily images could be categorized. Then they did two experiments with human volunteers. The first showed that the more discriminable scenery was as predicted by the model, the faster and more accurately people categorized it. The second showed that by manipulating discriminability they could completely wipe out the "superordinate advantage." If a more basic categorization was easier, it happened faster than the superordinate categorization.
"The mere fact that it is possible to reverse [the superordinate advantage], shows that it not a sequential type of process," Serre said. "Whatever is happening in the visual system might not be as sophisticated as we thought."
It's certainly still possible that a hybrid of the two hypotheses exist, Serre said. There may be some hierarchy or priorities, but discriminability is so a powerful a factor it can actually overwhelm it. Further experiments are underway.
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