Learning Acts on Distinct Processes for Visual Form Perception in the Human Brain
Stephen D. Mayhew, Sheng Li, and Zoe Kourtzi
The Journal of Neuroscience, 18 January 2012, 32(3):775-786;
Learning is known to facilitate our ability to detect targets in clutter and optimize brain processes for successful visual recognition. Previous brain-imaging studies have focused on identifying spatial patterns (i.e., brain areas) that change with learning, implicating occipitotemporal and frontoparietal areas. However, little is known about the interactions within this network that mediate learning-dependent improvement in complex perceptual tasks (i.e., discrimination of visual forms in clutter). Here we take advantage of the complementary high spatial and temporal resolution of simultaneous EEG-fMRI to identify the learning-dependent changes in spatiotemporal brain patterns that mediate enhanced behavioral sensitivity in the discrimination of global forms after training. We measured the observers' choices when discriminating between concentric and radial patterns presented in noise before and after training. Similarly, we measured the choices of a pattern classifier when predicting each stimulus from EEG-fMRI signals. By comparing the performance of human observers and classifiers, we demonstrated that learning alters sensitivity to visual forms and EEG-fMRI activation patterns related to distinct visual recognition processes. In particular, behavioral improvement after training was associated with changes in (1) early processes involved in the integration of global forms in higher occipitotemporal and parietal areas, and (2) later processes related to categorical judgments in frontal circuits. Thus, our findings provide evidence that learning acts on distinct visual recognition processes and shapes feedforward interactions across brain areas to support performance in complex perceptual tasks.