Searching for the Visual Components of Object Perception
The nature of visual properties used for object perception in mid- and high-level vision areas of the brain is poorly understood. Past studies have employed simplistic stimuli probing models limited in descriptive power and mathematical under-pinnings. Unfortunately, pursuit of more complex stimuli and properties requires searching through a wide, unknown space of models and of images. The difficulty of this pursuit is exacerbated in brain research by the limited number of stimulus responses that can be collected for a given human subject over the course of an experiment. To more quickly identify complex visual features underlying cortical object perception, I develop, test, and use a novel method in which stimuli for use in the ongoing study are selected in realtime based on fMRI-measured cortical responses to recently-selected and displayed stimuli. A variation of the simplex method controls this ongoing selection as part of a search in visual space for images producing maximal activity — measured in realtime — in a pre-determined 1 cm3 brain region. I probe cortical selectivities during this search using photographs of real-world objects and synthetic “Fribble” objects. Real-world objects are used to understand perception of naturally-occurring visual properties. These objects are characterized based on feature descriptors computed from the scale invariant feature transform (SIFT), a popular computer vision method that is well established in its utility for aiding in computer object recognition and that I recently found to account for intermediate-level representations in the visual object processing pathway in the brain. Fribble objects are used to study object perception in an arena in which visual properties are well defined a priori. They are constructed from multiple well-defined shapes, and variation of each of these component shapes produces a clear space of visual stimuli. I study the behavior of my novel realtime fMRI search method, to assess its value in the investigation of cortical visual perception, and I study the complex visual properties my method identifies as highly-activating selected brain regions in the visual object processing pathway. While there remain further technical and biological challenges to overcome, my method uncovers reliable and interesting cortical properties for most subjects — though only for selected searches performed for each subject. I identify brain regions selective for holistic and component object shapes and for varying surface properties, providing examples of more precise selectivities within classes of visual properties previously associated with cortical object representation. I also find examples of “surround suppression,” in which cortical activity is inhibited upon viewing stimuli slightly deviation from the visual properties preferred by a brain region, expanding on similar observations at lower levels of vision.