Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Categorization of visual objects entails matching a percept to long-term representations of structural knowledge. This object model selection is central to theories of human visual cognition, but the representational format(s) is largely unknown. To characterize these neural representations, event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to fragmented objects during an indirect memory test were compared when only local contour features, but not global shapes of the object and its parts, differed between encoding and retrieval experiences. The ERP effects revealed that the format of object representations varies across time according to the particular neural processing and memory system currently engaged. An occipito-temporal P2(00) showed implicit memory modulation to items that repeatedly engaged similar perceptual grouping processes but not items that merely reinstantiated visual features. After 500 msec, memory modulation of a late positive complex, indexing secondary categorization and/or explicit recollection processes, was sensitive to local contour changes. In between, a frontocentral N350, indexing the model selection and an implicit perceptual memory system, showed reactivation of object representations whenever the same global shapes were reactivated, despite local feature differences. These and prior N350 findings provide direct neurophysiological evidence that the neural representations supporting object categorization include knowledge beyond local contours and about higher-order perceptual structures, such as the global shapes of the object and its parts, that can differ between object views. The N350 is proposed to index a second state of interactive, recurrent, and feedback processing in occipital and ventral temporal neocortex supporting higher-order cognitive abilities and phenomenological awareness with objects.