A Neural System for Learning about Object Function

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Does our ability to visually identify everyday objects rely solely on access to information about their appearance or on a more distributed representation incorporating other object properties? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we addressed this question by having subjects visually match pictures of novel objects before and after extensive training to use these objects to perform specific tool-like tasks. After training, neural activity emerged in regions associated with the motion (left middle temporal gyrus) and manipulation (left intraparietal sulcus and premotor cortex) of common tools, whereas activity became more focal and selective in regions representing their visual appearance (fusiform gyrus). These findings indicate that this distributed network is automatically engaged in support of object identification. Moreover, the regions included in this network mirror those active when subjects retrieve information about tools and their properties, suggesting that, as a result of training, these previously novel objects have attained the conceptual status of “tools.”

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