Four common conceptual fallacies in mapping the time course of recognition

Front Psychol. 2011 Dec 7;2:365. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00365. eCollection 2011.


Determining the moment at which a visual recognition process is completed, or the order in which various processes come into play, are fundamental steps in any attempt to understand human recognition abilities, or to replicate the corresponding hierarchy of neuronal mechanisms within artificial systems. Common experimental paradigms for addressing these questions involve the measurement and/or comparison of backward-masking (or rapid serial visual presentation) psychometric functions and of physiological EEG/MEG/LFP signals (peak latencies, differential activities, single-trial decoding techniques). I review and illustrate four common mistakes that scientists tend to make when using these paradigms, and explain the conceptual fallacies that motivate their reasoning. First, contrary to collective intuition, presentation times, or stimulus-onset asynchrony masking thresholds cannot be taken to reflect, directly or indirectly, the timing of relevant brain processes. Second, psychophysical or electrophysiological measurements should not be compared without assessing potential physical differences between experimental stimulus sets. Third, such comparisons should not be performed in any manner contingent on subjective responses, so as to avoid response biases. Last, the filtering of electrophysiological signals alters their temporal structure, and thus precludes their interpretation in terms of time course. Practical solutions are proposed to overcome these common mistakes.

Keywords: EEG; backward-masking; low-level image properties; methodological and conceptual mistakes; rapid serial visual presentation; response bias; signal filtering; visual timing.