Musical Expertise Modulates the Effects of Visual Perceptual Load

By Ro, Tony; Friggel, Ashley et al. | Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Musical Expertise Modulates the Effects of Visual Perceptual Load


Ro, Tony, Friggel, Ashley, Lavie, Nilli, Attention, Perception and Psychophysics


Several studies have demonstrated that faces are processed differently from other types of objects, implicating a special role that faces have within the human visual system. However, other studies have suggested that faces may be special only in that they constitute a highly familiar category of visual objects with which most humans have expertise. In this study, we tested a group of expert musicians with a musical instrument classification task during which irrelevant images of musical instruments were presented as visual distractors under varying conditions of perceptual load. Unlike nonmusicians (who had been tested in Lavie, Ro, & Russell, 2003, using the same paradigm as in the present study), the musicians processed these irrelevant images of musical instruments even under conditions of high perceptual load. These results suggest that musical instruments are processed automatically and without capacity limits in subjects with musical expertise and implicate a specialized processing mechanism for objects of high familiarity.

Whether faces are innately special or simply belong to a highly experienced category of visual objects has been the subject of considerable debate (see, e.g., Kanwisher, 2000). Many studies have shown that faces may be differentially processed in comparison with other object categories (for review, see Farah, Wilson, Drain, & Tanaka, 1998). For example, faces are affected disproportionately by stimulus inversion (Yin, 1969), are processed more holistically than are other types of objects (Tanaka & Farah, 1993), and may be processed within a dedicated brain region (De Renzi, Perani, Carlesimo, Silveri, & Fazio, 1994; Desimone, Albright, Gross, & Bruce, 1984; Kanwisher, McDermott, & Chun, 1997). We have also provided evidence that human faces may constitute a special stimulus for visual attention (Lavie, Ro, & Russell, 2003; Ro, Friggel, & Lavie, 2007; Ro, Russell, & Lavie, 2001). For example, whereas nonface distractors can be ignored successfully when the relevant task involves high perceptual load, interference by distractor faces is not modulated by the level of load in the task. These results support the claim that processing of faces may be mediated by a specialized face-processing system (a "module") for which processing capacity is unaffected by the level of load in a nonface search task (using written names as the search stimuli).

Although there has been overwhelming evidence suggesting that the processing of faces is special, research has shown that words and objects (MacLeod, 1991; Tipper & Driver, 1988) can also be processed automatically, and other studies have shown that similar processing mechanisms for faces can be acquired for other object categories with visual expertise (Bukach, Gauthier, & Tarr, 2006). For example, when recognizing dogs, dog show judges demonstrated inversion costs that are similar to the costs measured with faces (Diamond & Carey, 1986). More recently, subjects who were trained on subordinate classification of novel objects demonstrated holistic processing for novel objects that are similar to faces (Gauthier & Tarr, 1997). Furthermore, neuroimaging studies of bird and car experts have demonstrated that the same brain area involved with processing faces in the fusiform gyrus is also involved with processing the objects of their expertise (i.e., birds for bird experts and cars for car experts; Gauthier, Skudlarski, Gore, & Anderson, 2000; Xu, 2005).

In the present study, we examined whether expertise with nonface objects can also render those objects into special stimuli for visual attention in the same way as has been shown for faces. We thus tested whether the perceptual processing of objects of expertise may also be unaffected by the level of perceptual load in a name search task. To this end, we recruited highly skilled musicians as subjects in an experiment employing the same paradigm as in one of our previous experiments (Lavie et al. …

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Musical Expertise Modulates the Effects of Visual Perceptual Load
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