Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Major theories for explaining the organization of semantic memory in the human brain are premised on the often-observed dichotomous dissociation between living and nonliving objects. Evidence from neuroimaging has been interpreted to suggest that this distinction is reflected in the functional topography of the ventral vision pathway as lateral-to-medial activation gradients. Recently, we observed that similar activation gradients also reflect differences among living stimuli consistent with the semantic dimension of graded animacy. Here, we address whether the salient dichotomous distinction between living and nonliving objects is actually reflected in observable measured brain activity or whether previous observations of a dichotomous dissociation were the illusory result of stimulus sampling biases. Using fMRI, we measured neural responses while participants viewed 10 animal species with high to low animacy and two inanimate categories. Representational similarity analysis of the activity in ventral vision cortex revealed a main axis of variation with high-animacy species maximally different from artifacts and with the least animate species closest to artifacts. Although the associated functional topography mirrored activation gradients observed for animate–inanimate contrasts, we found no evidence for a dichotomous dissociation. We conclude that a central organizing principle of human object vision corresponds to the graded psychological property of animacy with no clear distinction between living and nonliving stimuli. The lack of evidence for a dichotomous dissociation in the measured brain activity challenges theories based on this premise.