Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Ultra-rapid visual categorisation of natural and artifactual objects

Perception. 2001;30(6):655-68. doi: 10.1068/p3029.


Visual processing is known to be very fast in ultra-rapid categorisation tasks where the subject has to decide whether a briefly flashed image belongs to a target category or not. Human subjects can respond in under 400 ms, and event-related-potential studies have shown that the underlying processing can be done in less than 150 ms. Monkeys trained to perform the same task have proved even faster. However, most of these experiments have only been done with biologically relevant target categories such as animals or food. Here we performed the same study on human subjects, alternating between a task in which the target category was 'animal', and a task in which the target category was 'means of transport'. These natural images of clearly artificial objects contained targets as varied as cars, trucks, trains, boats, aircraft, and hot-air balloons. However, the subjects performed almost identically in both tasks, with reaction times not significantly longer in the 'means of transport' task. These reaction times were much shorter than in any previous study on natural-image processing. We conclude that, at least for these two superordinate categories, the speed of ultra-rapid visual categorisation of natural scenes does not depend on the target category, and that this processing could rely primarily on feed-forward, automatic mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Photography*
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Transportation
  • Visual Perception / physiology*