Categorical perception occurs when a perceiver's stimulus classifications affect their ability to make fine perceptual discriminations and is the most intensively studied form of category learning. On the basis of categorical perception studies, it has been proposed that category learning proceeds by the deformation of an initially homogeneous perceptual space (“perceptual warping”), so that stimuli within the same category are perceived as more similar to each other (more difficult to tell apart) than stimuli that are the same physical distance apart but that belong to different categories. Here, we present a significant counterexample in which robust category learning occurs without these differential perceptual space deformations. Two artificial categories were defined along the dimension of pitch for a perceptually unfamiliar, multidimensional class of sounds. A group of participants (selected on the basis of their listening abilities) were trained to sort sounds into these two arbitrary categories. Category formation, verified empirically, was accompanied by a heightened sensitivity along the entire pitch range, as indicated by changes in an EEG index of implicit perceptual distance (mismatch negativity), with no significant resemblance to the local perceptual deformations predicted by categorical perception. This demonstrates that robust categories can be initially formed within a continuous perceptual dimension without perceptual warping. We suggest that perceptual category formation is a flexible, multistage process sequentially combining different types of learning mechanisms rather than a single process with a universal set of behavioral and neural correlates.

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