Contextual information allows the human brain to make predictions about the identity of objects that might be seen and irregularities between an object and its background slow down perception and identification processes. Bar and colleagues modeled the mechanisms underlying this beneficial effect suggesting that the brain stocks information about the statistical regularities of object and scene co-occurrence. Their model suggests that these recurring regularities could be conceptualized along a continuum in which the probability of seeing an object within a given scene can be high (probable condition), moderate (improbable condition) or null (impossible condition). In the present experiment, we propose to disentangle the electrophysiological correlates of these context effects by directly comparing object-scene pairs found along this continuum. We recorded the event-related potentials of 30 healthy participants (18-34 years old) and analyzed their brain activity in three time windows associated with context effects. We observed anterior negativities between 250 and 500 ms after object onset for the improbable and impossible conditions (improbable more negative than impossible) compared to the probable condition as well as a parieto-occipital positivity (improbable more positive than impossible). The brain may use different processing pathways to identify objects depending on whether the probability of co-occurrence with the scene is moderate (rely more on top-down effects) or null (rely more on bottom-up influences). The posterior positivity could index error monitoring aimed to ensure that no false information is integrated into mental representations of the world.
Keywords: Context; Event-related potentials; Object; Probability; Scene.