Learning Warps Object Representations in the Ventral Temporal Cortex.


The human ventral temporal cortex (VTC) plays a critical role in object recognition. Although it is well established that visual experience shapes VTC object representations, the impact of semantic and contextual learning is unclear. In this study, we tracked changes in representations of novel visual objects that emerged after learning meaningful information about each object. Over multiple training sessions, participants learned to associate semantic features (e.g., "made of wood," "floats") and spatial contextual associations (e.g., "found in gardens") with novel objects. fMRI was used to examine VTC activity for objects before and after learning. Multivariate pattern similarity analyses revealed that, after learning, VTC activity patterns carried information about the learned contextual associations of the objects, such that objects with contextual associations exhibited higher pattern similarity after learning. Furthermore, these learning-induced increases in pattern information about contextual associations were correlated with reductions in pattern information about the object's visual features. In a second experiment, we validated that these contextual effects translated to real-life objects. Our findings demonstrate that visual object representations in VTC are shaped by the knowledge we have about objects and show that object representations can flexibly adapt as a consequence of learning with the changes related to the specific kind of newly acquired information.