Neural Representations of Contextual Guidance in Visual Search of Real-World Scenes
Exploiting scene context and object–object co-occurrence is critical in guiding eye movements and facilitating visual search, yet the mediating neural mechanisms are unknown. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging while observers searched for target objects in scenes and used multivariate pattern analyses (MVPA) to show that the lateral occipital complex (LOC) can predict the coarse spatial location of observers' expectations about the likely location of 213 different targets absent from the scenes. In addition, we found weaker but significant representations of context location in an area related to the orienting of attention (intraparietal sulcus, IPS) as well as a region related to scene processing (retrosplenial cortex, RSC). Importantly, the degree of agreement among 100 independent raters about the likely location to contain a target object in a scene correlated with LOC's ability to predict the contextual location while weaker but significant effects were found in IPS, RSC, the human motion area, and early visual areas (V1, V3v). When contextual information was made irrelevant to observers' behavioral task, the MVPA analysis of LOC and the other areas' activity ceased to predict the location of context. Thus, our findings suggest that the likely locations of targets in scenes are represented in various visual areas with LOC playing a key role in contextual guidance during visual search of objects in real scenes.