The visual system has an extraordinary capability to extract categorical information from complex natural scenes. For example, subjects are able to rapidly detect the presence of object categories such as animals or vehicles in new scenes that are presented very briefly. This is even true when subjects do not pay attention to the scenes and simultaneously perform an unrelated attentionally demanding task, a stark contrast to the capacity limitations predicted by most theories of visual attention. Here we show a neural basis for rapid natural scene categorization in the visual cortex, using functional magnetic resonance imaging and an object categorization task in which subjects detected the presence of people or cars in briefly presented natural scenes. The multi-voxel pattern of neural activity in the object-selective cortex evoked by the natural scenes contained information about the presence of the target category, even when the scenes were task-irrelevant and presented outside the focus of spatial attention. These findings indicate that the rapid detection of categorical information in natural scenes is mediated by a category-specific biasing mechanism in object-selective cortex that operates in parallel across the visual field, and biases information processing in favour of objects belonging to the target object category.
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