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Researchers have discovered how the brain broadly characterizes objects by size, revealing a fundamental insight into how we interact with the world.
The brain sees a qualitative difference between “small” objects—ones we usually pick up, such as paperclips or strawberries—and “large” objects—ones we use our bodies to interact with, such as chairs or cars. While researchers have previously identified brain regions that recognize specific objects like faces and letters, this discovery, published yesterday (June 21) in Neuron, is one of the first documented “rules” about how people interpret the world around them.
“This paper stands out in that it found a very large-scale organization that covers just about all the parts of the visual cortex that are responsive to shape of any kind,” said visual neuroscientist Ed Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the study. “Instead of a finding of a small area of specialization, they are describing an overall organizing principle.”
A Real-World Size Organization of Object Responses in Occipitotemporal Cortex
* Large-scale organization of big and small object responses across the cortex
* New functional regions show robust response differences between big and small objects
* Regions are tolerant to retinal size changes and activate during mental imagery
* We propose real-world size is an organizing dimension of object representation
While there are selective regions of occipitotemporal cortex that respond to faces, letters, and bodies, the large-scale neural organization of most object categories remains unknown. Here, we find that object representations can be differentiated along the ventral temporal cortex by their real-world size. In a functional neuroimaging experiment, observers were shown pictures of big and small real-world objects (e.g., table, bathtub; paperclip, cup), presented at the same retinal size. We observed a consistent medial-to-lateral organization of big and small object preferences in the ventral temporal cortex, mirrored along the lateral surface. Regions in the lateral-occipital, inferotemporal, and parahippocampal cortices showed strong peaks of differential real-world size selectivity and maintained these preferences over changes in retinal size and in mental imagery. These data demonstrate that the real-world size of objects can provide insight into the spatial topography of object representation.