No matter how: Top-down effects of verbal and semantic category knowledge on early visual perception

  • Martin MaierEmail author
  • Rasha Abdel Rahman


Language is assumed to augment human cognition. But can language also affect basic mechanisms of perception, suggesting cognitive penetrability of perception? This idea is highly controversial: linguistic categorization may induce top-down effects on ongoing perceptual processing. Alternatively, such effects may not concern perception proper, but pre-perceptual shifts of attention or downstream processes, such as perceptual judgment. This study provides a critical test of these views by investigating categorical perception (CP) of novel objects in a balanced learning design, controlling for perceptual experience and low-level visual differences. To better understand which linguistic representations induce CP, we manipulated the type of information categories were based on: bare verbal labels, in-depth semantic knowledge, or the combined information from labels associated with semantic knowledge. We used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) derived from the EEG in a visual search task to localize CP effects at perceptual or pre/post-perceptual stages. The results replicated behavioral CP with facilitated visual search when target and distractors belonged to different linguistic categories. ERPs revealed CP effects in the P1 and N1 components, associated with early visual processing. Attentional selection, reflected in the N2, also was influenced by linguistic categories. The N2 and the N400, a measure of high-level semantic processing, were sensitive to the depth of semantic knowledge associated with objects. CP, however, did not differ between category types, suggesting that any linguistic categorization can lead to CP. The findings support cognitive penetrability of perception, with linguistic categories informing perceptual predictions down to the processing of low-level visual features.


Categorical perception Semantic knowledge Event-related potentials Linguistic relativity Top-down effects 



This work was supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (grant number AB 277- 6) to Rasha Abdel Rahman. Martin Maier was supported by scholarships granted by the State of Berlin and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. The authors thank Julia Baum and Hannah Klouth for their help with data collection and Guido Kiecker for technical advice and task programming.

Authors’ contributions

Both authors developed the study design, discussed the results, and wrote the manuscript. M.M. collected and analyzed data.

Supplementary material

13415_2018_679_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (674 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 674 kb)


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© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Berlin School of Mind and BrainBerlinGermany

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