Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Learning associations between co-occurring events enables us to extract structure from our environment. Medial-temporal lobe structures are critical for associative learning. However, the role of the ventral visual pathway (VVP) in associative learning is not clear. Do multivoxel object representations in the VVP reflect newly formed associations? We show that VVP multivoxel representations become more similar to each other after human participants learn arbitrary new associations between pairs of unrelated objects (faces, houses, cars, chairs). Participants were scanned before and after 15 days of associative learning. To evaluate how object representations changed, a classifier was trained on discriminating two nonassociated categories (e.g., faces/houses) and tested on discriminating their paired associates (e.g., cars/chairs). Because the associations were arbitrary and counterbalanced across participants, there was initially no particular reason for this cross-classification decision to tend toward either alternative. Nonetheless, after learning, cross-classification performance increased in the VVP (but not hippocampus), on average by 3.3%, with some voxels showing increases of up to 10%. For example, a chair multivoxel representation that initially resembled neither face nor house representations was, after learning, classified as more similar to that of faces for participants who associated chairs with faces and to that of houses for participants who associated chairs with houses. Additionally, learning produced long-lasting perceptual consequences. In a behavioral priming experiment performed several months later, the change in cross-classification performance was correlated with the degree of priming. Thus, VVP multivoxel representations are not static but become more similar to each other after associative learning.