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Retinal-specific category learning


Virtually all cognitive theories of category learning (such as prototype theory1,2,3,4,5 and exemplar theory6,7,8) view this important skill as a high-level process that uses abstract representations of objects in the world. Because these representations are removed from visual characteristics of the display, such theories suggest that category learning occurs in higher-level (such as association) areas and therefore should be immune to the visual field dependencies that characterize processing of objects mediated by representations in low-level visual areas. Here we challenge that view by describing a fully controlled demonstration of visual-field dependence in category learning. Eye-tracking was used to control gaze while participants either learned rule-based categories known to recruit prefrontal-based explicit reasoning, or information-integration categories known to depend on basal-ganglia-mediated procedural learning9. Results showed that learning was visual-field dependent with information-integration categories, but we found no evidence of visual-field dependence with rule-based categories. A theoretical interpretation of this difference is offered in terms of the underlying neurobiology. Finally, these results are situated within the broad perceptual-learning literature in an attempt to motivate further research on the similarities and differences between category and perceptual learning.

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This research was supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant no. 1650114, by NIH grant 2R01MH063760, and by NIH grant R01 EB018958. The funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Thanks to M. Casale, who worked on an earlier version of these experiments, and to M. Swiacki, A. Mar, B. Renard, K. Nunez, T. Timsit, E. Kim and C. Valtier for their assistance with data collection.

Author information

L.A.R. and F.G.A. conceived and designed the experiment with input from M.P.E. L.A.R. managed data collection and analysed the data. L.A.R., M.P.E., and F.G.A. wrote the paper. All authors approved the final draft of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to F. Gregory Ashby.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Sample stimuli and four information-integration categories.
Fig. 2: Order of events that occurred in each phase of the ‘new eye first’ condition.
Fig. 3: Results of experiment 1.
Fig. 4: Results of experiment 2.