Scene context impairs perception of semantically congruent objects

Read the full article


Visual scene context is well-known to facilitate the recognition of scene-congruent objects. Interestingly, however, according to the influential theory of predictive coding, scene congruency should lead to reduced (rather than enhanced) processing of congruent objects, compared to incongruent ones, since congruent objects elicit reduced prediction error responses. We tested this counterintuitive hypothesis in two online behavioural experiments with human participants (N = 300). We found clear evidence for impaired perception of congruent objects, both in a change detection task measuring response times as well as in a bias-free object discrimination task measuring accuracy. Congruency costs were related to independent subjective congruency ratings. Finally, we show that the reported effects cannot be explained by low-level stimulus confounds, response biases, or top-down strategy. These results provide convincing evidence for perceptual congruency costs during scene viewing, in line with predictive coding theory.

Statement of Relevance

The theory of the ‘Bayesian brain’, the idea that our brain is a hypothesis-testing machine, has become very influential over the past decades. A particularly influential formulation is the theory of predictive coding. This theory entails that stimuli that are expected, for instance because of the context in which they appear, generate a weaker neural response than unexpected stimuli. Scene context correctly ‘predicts’ congruent scene elements, which should result in lower prediction error. Our study tests this important, counterintuitive, and hitherto not fully tested, hypothesis. We find clear evidence in favour of it, and demonstrate that these ‘congruency costs’ are indeed evident in perception, and not limited to one particular task setting or stimulus set. Since perception in the real world is never of isolated objects, but always of entire scenes, these findings are important not just for the Bayesian brain hypothesis, but for our understanding of real-world visual perception in general.

Article activity feed