Understanding natural scenes involves the contribution of bottom–up analysis and top–down modulatory processes. However, the interaction of these processes during the categorization of natural scenes is not well understood. In the current study, we approached this issue using ERPs and behavioral and computational data. We presented pictures of natural scenes and asked participants to categorize them in response to different questions (Is it an animal/vehicle? Is it indoors/outdoors? Are there one/two foreground elements?). ERPs for target scenes requiring a “yes” response began to differ from those of nontarget scenes, beginning at 250 msec from picture onset, and this ERP difference was unmodulated by the categorization questions. Earlier ERPs showed category-specific differences (e.g., between animals and vehicles), which were associated with the processing of scene statistics. From 180 msec after scene onset, these category-specific ERP differences were modulated by the categorization question that was asked. Categorization goals do not modulate only later stages associated with target/nontarget decision but also earlier perceptual stages, which are involved in the processing of scene statistics.

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