The Influence of Behavioral Relevance on the Processing of Global Scene Properties: An ERP Study

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Recent work studying the temporal dynamics of visual scene processing (Harel et al., 2016) has found that global scene properties (GSPs) modulate the amplitude of early Event-Related Potentials (ERPs). It is still not clear, however, to what extent the processing of these GSPs is influenced by their behavioral relevance, determined by the goals of the observer. To address this question, we investigated how behavioral relevance, operationalized by the task context impacts the electrophysiological responses to GSPs. In a set of two experiments we recorded ERPs while participants viewed images of real-world scenes, varying along two GSPs, naturalness (manmade/natural) and spatial expanse (open/closed). In Experiment 1, very little attention to scene content was required as participants viewed the scenes while performing an orthogonal fixation-cross task. In Experiment 2 participants saw the same scenes but now had to actively categorize them, based either on their naturalness or spatial expense. We found that task context had very little impact on the early ERP responses to the naturalness and spatial expanse of the scenes: P1, N1, and P2 could distinguish between open and closed scenes and between manmade and natural scenes across both experiments. Further, the specific effects of naturalness and spatial expanse on the ERP components were largely unaffected by their relevance for the task. A task effect was found at the N1 and P2 level, but this effect was manifest across all scene dimensions, indicating a general effect rather than an interaction between task context and GSPs. Together, these findings suggest that the extraction of global scene information reflected in the early ERP components is rapid and very little influenced by top-down observer-based goals.



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