Psychology Magazine

How We See What We Expect to See.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
Kok et al. show that expectations can induce the preactivation of stimulus templates in our brain that resemble the neural signals actually generated when the stimuls is presented:
The way that we perceive the world is partly shaped by what we expect to see at any given moment. However, it is unclear how this process is neurally implemented. Recently, it has been proposed that the brain generates stimulus templates in sensory cortex to preempt expected inputs. Here, we provide evidence that a representation of the expected stimulus is present in the neural signal shortly before it is presented, showing that expectations can indeed induce the preactivation of stimulus templates. Importantly, these expectation signals resembled the neural signal evoked by an actually presented stimulus, suggesting that expectations induce similar patterns of activations in visual cortex as sensory stimuli.
Perception can be described as a process of inference, integrating bottom-up sensory inputs and top-down expectations. However, it is unclear how this process is neurally implemented. It has been proposed that expectations lead to prestimulus baseline increases in sensory neurons tuned to the expected stimulus, which in turn, affect the processing of subsequent stimuli. Recent fMRI studies have revealed stimulus-specific patterns of activation in sensory cortex as a result of expectation, but this method lacks the temporal resolution necessary to distinguish pre- from poststimulus processes. Here, we combined human magnetoencephalography (MEG) with multivariate decoding techniques to probe the representational content of neural signals in a time-resolved manner. We observed a representation of expected stimuli in the neural signal shortly before they were presented, showing that expectations indeed induce a preactivation of stimulus templates. The strength of these prestimulus expectation templates correlated with participants’ behavioral improvement when the expected feature was task-relevant. These results suggest a mechanism for how predictive perception can be neurally implemented.

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