Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The brain can organize elements into perceptually meaningful gestalts. Visual symmetry is a useful tool to study gestalt formation, and we know that there are symmetry-sensitive regions in the extrastriate cortex. However, it is unclear whether symmetrical gestalt formation happens automatically, whatever the participant's current task is. Does the visual brain always organize and interpret the retinal image when possible, or only when necessary? To test this, we recorded an ERP called the sustained posterior negativity (SPN). SPN amplitude increases with the proportion of symmetry in symmetry + noise displays. We compared the SPN across five tasks with different cognitive and perceptual demands. Contrary to our predictions, the SPN was the same across four of the five tasks but selectively enhanced during active regularity discrimination. Furthermore, during regularity discrimination, the SPN was present on hit trials and false alarm trials but absent on miss and correct rejection trials. We conclude that gestalt formation is automatic and task-independent, although it occasionally fails on miss trials. However, it can be enhanced by attention to visual regularity.