The visual cortex of the human brain contains specialized modules for processing different visual features of an object. Confronted with multiple objects, the system needs to attribute the correct features to each object (often referred to as 'the binding problem'). The brain is assumed to integrate the features of perceived objects into object files – pointers to the neural representations of these features, which outlive the event they represent in order to maintain stable percepts of objects over time. It has been hypothesized that a new encounter with one of the previously bound features will reactivate the other features in the associated object file according to a kind of pattern-completion process.
Fourteen healthy volunteers participated in an fMRI experiment and performed a task designed to measure the aftereffects of binding visual features (houses, faces, motion direction). On each trial, participants viewed a particular combination of features (S1) before carrying out a speeded choice response to a second combination of features (S2). Repetition and alternation of all three features was varied orthogonally.
The behavioral results showed the standard partial repetition costs: a reaction time increase when one feature was repeated and the other feature alternated between S1 and S2, as compared to complete repetitions or alternations of these features. Importantly, the fMRI results provided evidence that repeating motion direction reactivated the object that previously moved in the same direction. More specifically, perceiving a face moving in the same direction as a just-perceived house increased activation in the parahippocampal place area (PPA). A similar reactivation effect was not observed for faces in the fusiform face area (FFA). Individual differences in the size of the reactivation effects in the PPA and FFA showed a positive correlation with the corresponding partial repetition costs.
Our study provides the first neural evidence that features are bound together on a single presentation and that reviewing one feature automatically reactivates the features that previously accompanied it.