Most visual activities, whether reading, driving, or playing video games, require rapid detection and identification of learned patterns defined by arbitrary conjunctions of visual features. Initially, such detection is slow and inefficient, but it can become fast and efficient with training. To determine how the brain learns to process conjunctions of visual features efficiently, we trained participants over eight consecutive days to search for a target defined by an arbitrary conjunction of color and location among distractors with a different conjunction of the same features. During each training session, we measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The speed of visual search for feature conjunctions improved dramatically within just a few days. These behavioral improvements were correlated with increased neural responses to the stimuli in visual cortex. This suggests that changes in neural processing in visual cortex contribute to the speeding up of visual feature conjunction search. We find evidence that this effect is driven by an increase in the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of the BOLD signal for search targets over distractors. In a control condition where target and distractor identities were exchanged after training, learned search efficiency was abolished, suggesting that the primary improvement was perceptual learning for the search stimuli, not task-learning. Moreover, when participants were retested on the original task after nine months without further training, the acquired changes in behavior and brain activity were still present, showing that this can be an enduring form of learning and neural reorganization.
Keywords: attention; fMRI; neural plasticity; perceptual learning; visual cortex; visual search.
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