Semantic scene-object consistency modulates N300/400 EEG components, but does not automatically facilitate object representations

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During natural vision, objects rarely appear in isolation, but often within a semantically related scene context. Previous studies reported that semantic consistency between objects and scenes facilitates object perception and that scene-object consistency is reflected in changes in the N300 and N400 components in EEG recordings. Here, we investigate whether these N300/400 differences are indicative of changes in the cortical representation of objects. In two experiments, we recorded EEG signals, while participants viewed semantically consistent or inconsistent objects within a scene; in Experiment 1, these objects were task-irrelevant, while in Experiment 2, they were directly relevant for behavior. In both experiments, we found reliable and comparable N300/400 differences between consistent and inconsistent scene-object combinations. To probe the quality of object representations, we performed multivariate classification analyses, in which we decoded the category of the objects contained in the scene. In Experiment 1, in which the objects were not task-relevant, object category could be decoded from ~100 ms after the object presentation, but no difference in decoding performance was found between consistent and inconsistent objects. In contrast, when the objects were task-relevant in Experiment 2, we found enhanced decoding of semantically consistent, compared with semantically inconsistent, objects. These results show that differences in N300/400 components related to scene-object consistency do not index changes in cortical object representations but rather reflect a generic marker of semantic violations. Furthermore, our findings suggest that facilitatory effects between objects and scenes are task-dependent rather than automatic.

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