Abstract

Rapid visual perception is often viewed as a bottom–up process. Category-preferred neural regions are often characterized as automatic, default processing mechanisms for visual inputs of their categorical preference. To explore the sensitivity of such regions to top–down information, we examined three scene-preferring brain regions, the occipital place area (OPA), the parahippocampal place area (PPA), and the retrosplenial complex (RSC), and tested whether the processing of outdoor scenes is influenced by the functional contexts in which they are seen. Context was manipulated by presenting real-world landscape images as if being viewed through a window or within a picture frame—manipulations that do not affect scene content but do affect one's functional knowledge regarding the scene. This manipulation influences neural scene processing (as measured by fMRI): The OPA and the PPA exhibited greater neural activity when participants viewed images as if through a window as compared with within a picture frame, whereas the RSC did not show this difference. In a separate behavioral experiment, functional context affected scene memory in predictable directions (boundary extension). Our interpretation is that the window context denotes three-dimensionality, therefore rendering the perceptual experience of viewing landscapes as more realistic. Conversely, the frame context denotes a 2-D image. As such, more spatially biased scene representations in the OPA and the PPA are influenced by differences in top–down, perceptual expectations generated from context. In contrast, more semantically biased scene representations in the RSC are likely to be less affected by top–down signals that carry information about the physical layout of a scene.

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