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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Chinese characters reveal impacts of prior experience on very early stages of perception

Tobias Elze1*, Chen Song2, Rainer Stollhoff1 and Jürgen Jost13

Author Affiliations

1 Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences, Inselstr. 22,04103 Leipzig, Germany

2 Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London WC1N 3AR, UK

3 Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2011, 12:14  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-12-14

Published: 26 January 2011

Abstract

Background

Visual perception is strongly determined by accumulated experience with the world, which has been shown for shape, color, and position perception, in the field of visuomotor learning, and in neural computation. In addition, visual perception is tuned to statistics of natural scenes. Such prior experience is modulated by neuronal top-down control the temporal properties of which had been subject to recent studies. Here, we deal with these temporal properties and address the question how early in time accumulated past experience can modulate visual perception.

Results

We performed stimulus discrimination experiments and compared a group of Chinese participants with a German control group. The perception of our briefly presented visual objects (targets) was disturbed by masking stimuli which appeared in close spatiotemporal proximity. These masking stimuli were either intact or scrambled Chinese characters and did not overlap with the targets. In contrast to German controls, Chinese participants show substantial performance differences for real versus scrambled Chinese characters if these masking stimuli were presented as early as less than 100 milliseconds after the onset of the target. For Chinese observers, it even occured that meaningful masking stimuli enhanced target identification if they were shown at least 100 milliseconds after target onset while the same stimuli impaired recognition if presented in close temporal proximity to the target. The latter finding challenges interpretations of our data that solely rely on stimulus contours or geometric properties and emphasizes the impact of prior experience on the very early temporal dynamics of the visual system.

Conclusions

Our findings demonstrate that prior experience which had been accummulated long before the experiments can modulate the time course of perception intriguingly early, namely already immediately after the perceptual onset of a visual event. This modulation cannot solely operate as a feedback in response to the visual event but is rather a permanent effect.