Connecting the dots without top-down knowledge: Evidence for rapidly-learned low-level associations that are independent of object identity.

Knowing the identity of an object can powerfully alter perception. Visual demonstrations of this—such as Gregory’s (1970) hidden Dalmatian—affirm the existence of both top-down and bottom-up processing. We consider a third processing pathway: lateral connections between the parts of an object. Lateral associations are assumed by theories of object processing and hierarchical theories of memory, but little evidence attests to them. If they exist, their effects should be observable even in the absence of object identity knowledge. We employed Continuous Flash Suppression (CFS) while participants studied object images, such that visual details were learned without explicit object identification. At test, lateral associations were probed using a part-to-part matching task. We also tested whether part-whole links were facilitated by prior study using a part-naming task, and included another study condition (Word), in which participants saw only an object’s written name. The key question was whether CFS study (which provided visual information without identity) would better support part-to-part matching (via lateral associations) whereas Word study (which provided identity without the correct visual form) would better support part-naming (via top-down processing). The predicted dissociation was found and confirmed by state-trace analyses. Thus, lateral part-to-part associations were learned and retrieved independently of object identity representations. This establishes novel links between perception and memory, demonstrating that (a) lateral associations at lower levels of the object identification hierarchy exist and contribute to object processing and (b) these associations are learned via rapid, episodic-like mechanisms previously observed for the high-level, arbitrary relations comprising episodic memories. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)