Abstract

Behavioral studies have shown that statistical properties of object groups are perceived accurately with brief exposure durations. This finding motivated the hypothesis that ensemble perception occurs rapidly in vision. However, the precise timing of ensemble perception remains unclear. Here, we used the superior temporal resolution of electroencephalography to directly compare the timing of ensemble processing to that of individual object processing. The P3b was chosen as a particular component of interest, as it is thought to measure the latency of stimulus evaluation. Participants performed a simple “oddball” task in which sets of 51 lines with varied orientations sequentially flashed briefly on the display. In these sequences, there was a 20% chance of an individual oddball, wherein one marked object tilted clockwise, and a 20% chance of an ensemble oddball, wherein the average orientation of the set tilted clockwise. In counterbalanced blocks, participants were instructed to respond to either individual or ensemble oddballs. ERP analysis was performed to test the timing of this processing. At parietal electrodes, P3b components were found for both individual and ensemble oddballs. Ensemble P3b components were found to occur significantly earlier than individual P3b components, as measured with both 50% area latency and 50% onset latency. Using multivariate pattern analysis, ensemble oddball trials were classifiable from standard trials significantly earlier in their timecourse than individual oddball trials. Altogether, these results provide compelling evidence that ensemble perception occurs rapidly and that ensemble properties can be available earlier than individual object properties.

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