Measuring internal representations from behavioral and brain data

Curr Biol. 2012 Feb 7;22(3):191-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.061. Epub 2012 Jan 19.


The study of internal knowledge representations is a cornerstone of the research agenda in the interdisciplinary study of cognition. An influential proposal assumes that the brain uses its internal knowledge of the external world to constrain, in a top-down manner, high-dimensional sensory data into a lower-dimensional representation that enables perceptual decisions and other higher-level cognitive functions [1-9]. This proposal relies on a precise formulation of the observer-specific internal knowledge (i.e., the internal representations, or models) that guides reduction of the high-dimensional retinal input onto a low-dimensional code. Here, we directly revealed the content of subjective internal representations by instructing five observers to detect a face in the presence of only white noise, to force a pure top-down, knowledge-based task. We used reverse correlation methods to visualize each observer's internal representation that supports detection of an illusory face. Using reverse correlation again, this time applied to observers' electroencephalogram activity, we established where and when in the brain specific internal knowledge conceptually interprets the input white noise as a face. We show that internal representations can be reconstructed experimentally from behavioral and brain data, and that their content drives neural activity first over frontal and then over occipitotemporal cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition*
  • Face*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Occipital Lobe / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*