Newly acquired audio-visual associations bias perception in binocular rivalry

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When distinct stimuli are presented to the two eyes, their mental representations alternate in awareness. Here, such “binocular rivalry” was used to investigate whether audio-visual associations bias visual perception. To induce two arbitrary associations, each between a tone and a grating of a specific color and motion direction, observers were required to respond whenever this combination was presented, but not for other tone-grating combinations. After about 20 min of this induction phase, each of the gratings was presented to one eye to induce rivalry, while either of the two tones or no tone was played. Observers were asked to watch the rivaling stimuli and listen to the tones. The observer's dominant percept was assessed throughout by measuring the optokinetic nystagmus (OKN), whose slow phase follows the direction of the currently dominant grating. We found that perception in rivalry was affected by the concurrently played tone. Results suggest a bias towards the grating that had been associated with the concurrently presented tone and prolonged dominance durations for this grating compared to the other. Numerically, conditions without tone fell in-between for measures of bias and dominance duration. Our data show that a rapidly acquired arbitrary audio-visual association biases visual perception. Unlike previously reported cross-modal interactions in rivalry, this effect can neither be explained by a pure attentional (dual-task) effect, nor does it require a fixed physical or semantic relation between the auditory and visual stimulus. This suggests that audio-visual associations that are quickly formed by associative learning may affect visual representations directly.

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