What is Special about Expertise? Visual Expertise Reveals the Interactive Nature of Real-World Object Recognition

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Ever since Diamond and Carey (1986. J. Exp. Psychol.: Gen., vol. 115, pp. 107–117) seminal work, the main model for studying expertise in visual object recognition (“visual expertise”) has been face perception. The underlying assumption was that since faces may be considered the ultimate domain of visual expertise, any face-processing signature might actually be a general characteristic of visual expertise. However, while humans are clearly experts in face recognition, visual expertise is not restricted to faces and can be observed in a variety of domains. This raises the question of whether face recognition is in fact the right model to study visual expertise, and if not, what are the common cognitive and neural characteristics of visual expertise. The current perspective article addresses this question by revisiting past and recent neuroimaging and behavioural works on visual expertise. The view of visual expertise that emerges from these works is that expertise is a unique phenomenon, with distinctive neural and cognitive characteristics. Specifically, visual expertise is a controlled, interactive process that develops from the reciprocal interactions between the visual system and multiple top-down factors, including semantic knowledge, top-down attentional control, and task relevance. These interactions enable the ability to flexibly access domain-specific information at multiple scales and levels guided by multiple recognition goals. Extensive visual experience with a given object category culminates in the recruitment of these multiple systems, and is reflected in widespread neural activity, extending well beyond visual cortex, to include higher-level cortical areas.



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