Cognitive tomography reveals complex, task-independent mental representations

Curr Biol. 2013 Nov 4;23(21):2169-75. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.012.


Humans develop rich mental representations that guide their behavior in a variety of everyday tasks. However, it is unknown whether these representations, often formalized as priors in Bayesian inference, are specific for each task or subserve multiple tasks. Current approaches cannot distinguish between these two possibilities because they cannot extract comparable representations across different tasks. Here, we develop a novel method, termed cognitive tomography, that can extract complex, multidimensional priors across tasks. We apply this method to human judgments in two qualitatively different tasks, "familiarity" and "odd one out," involving an ecologically relevant set of stimuli, human faces. We show that priors over faces are structurally complex and vary dramatically across subjects, but are invariant across the tasks within each subject. The priors we extract from each task allow us to predict with high precision the behavior of subjects for novel stimuli both in the same task as well as in the other task. Our results provide the first evidence for a single high-dimensional structured representation of a naturalistic stimulus set that guides behavior in multiple tasks. Moreover, the representations estimated by cognitive tomography can provide independent, behavior-based regressors for elucidating the neural correlates of complex naturalistic priors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Face
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Recognition, Psychology*
  • Young Adult