Evidence that neural information flow is reversed between object perception and object reconstruction from memory



A total of 49 volunteers (39 female; mean age 20.02 ± 1.55 years) took part in behavioural Experiment 1. Twenty-six of them (19 female; mean age 20.62 ± 1.62 years) participated in the memory reaction time task. Five out of these 26 participants were not included in the final analysis due to poor memory performance (<66% general accuracy) compared with the rest of the group (t24 = 6.65, P< .01). Another group of 23 participants (20 female; mean age 19.35 ± 1.11 years) volunteered to participate in the visual reaction time task. In a second behavioural experiment (Experiment 2), 48 participants were recruited (42 female; mean age 19.25 ± .91 years). Twenty-four of them performed the memory reaction time task and another group of 24 took part in the visual reaction time task. For the electrophysiological experiment we recruited a total of 24 volunteers (20 female; mean age 21.91 ± 4.68 years). The first three subjects we recorded performed a slightly different task during retrieval blocks (i.e., they were not asked to mentally visualise the object for 3 s, and they had to answer only one of the perceptual and semantic questions per trial), and were therefore not included in any of the retrieval analyses. Since our paradigm was designed to test for a new effect, we did not have priors regarding the expected effect size. Behavioural piloting of the memory task showed a significant difference in RTs in a sample of n = 14. We therefore felt confident that the effect would replicate in our larger samples of n = 24 per group in each in the two behavioural experiments and the EEG experiment.

All participants reported being native or highly fluent English speakers, having normal (20/20) or corrected-to-normal vision, normal colour vision, and no history of neurological disorders. We received written informed consent from all participants before the beginning of the experiment. They were naïve as to the goals of the experiments, but were debriefed at the end. Participants were compensated for their time, receiving course credits or £6 per hour for participation in the behavioural task, or a total of £20 for participation in the electrophysiological experiment. The University of Birmingham’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Ethical Review Committee approved all experiments.


In total, 128 pictures of unique everyday objects and common animals were used in the main experiment, and a further 16 were used for practice purposes. Out of these, 96 were selected from the BOSS database52, and the remaining images were obtained from online royalty-free databases. All original images were pictures in colour on a white background. To produce two different semantic object categories, half of the objects were chosen to be animate while the other half was inanimate. Within the category of inanimate objects, we selected the same amount of electronic devices, clothes, fruits and vegetables (16 each). The animate category was composed of an equivalent number of mammals, birds, insects and marine animals (16 each). With the objective of creating two levels of perceptual manipulation, a freehand line drawing of each image was created using the free and open source GNU image manipulation software (www.gimp.org). Hence a total of 128 freehand drawings of the respective 128 pictures of everyday objects were created. Each drawing was composed of a white background and black lines to generate a schematic outline of each stimulus. For each subject, half of the objects were pseudo-randomly chosen to be presented as photographs, and half of them as drawings, with the restriction that the two perceptual categories were equally distributed across (i.e. orthogonal with respect to) the animate and inanimate object categories. All photographs and line drawings were presented at the centre of the screen with a rescaled size of 500 × 500 pixels. For the memory reaction time task and the EEG experiment, 128 action verbs were selected that served as associative cues. Experiment 2 also used colour background scenes of indoor and outdoor spaces (900 × 1600 pixels) that were obtained from online royalty-free databases, which are irrelevant for the present purpose.

Procedure for Experiment 1—Visual reaction time task

Before the start of the experiment, participants were given oral instructions and completed a training block of four trials to become familiar with the task. The main perceptual task consisted of four blocks of 32 trials each (Fig. 1b). All trials started with a jittered fixation cross (500–1500 ms) that was followed by a question screen. On each trial, the question could either be a perceptual question asking the participant to decide as quickly as possible whether the upcoming object is shown as a colour photograph or as a line drawing; or a semantic question asking whether the upcoming object represents an animate or inanimate object. Two possible response options were displayed at the two opposite sides of the screen (right or left). The options for “animate” and “photograph” were always located on the right side to keep the response mapping easy. The question screen was displayed for 3 s, and an object was then added at the centre of the screen. In Experiment 2, this object was overlaid onto a background that filled large parts of the screen. Participants were asked to categorise the object in line with the question as fast as they could as soon as the object appeared on the screen, by pressing the left or right arrow on the keyboard. RTs were measured to test if participants were faster at making perceptual compared to semantic decisions.

All pictures were presented until the participant made a response but for a maximum of 10 s, after which the next trial started. Feedback about participants’ performance was presented at the end of each experimental block. There were 256 trials overall, with each object being presented twice across the experiment, once together with a perceptual and once with a semantic question. Repetitions of the same object were separated by a minimum distance of two intervening trials. In each block, we asked the semantic question first for half of the objects, and the perceptual question first for the other half.

The final reaction time analyses only included trials with correct responses, and excluded all trials with an RT that exceeded the average over subjects by ±2.5 standard deviations (SDs).

Procedure for Experiment 1—Memory reaction time task

The memory version was kept very similar to the visual reaction time task, but we now measured RTs for objects that were reconstructed from memory rather than being presented on the screen, and we thus had to introduce a learning phase first. At the beginning of the session, all participants received instructions and performed two short practice blocks. Each of the overall 16 experimental blocks consisted of an associative learning phase (eight word–object associations) and a retrieval phase (16 trials, testing each object twice, once with a perceptual and once with a semantic question). The associative learning and the retrieval test were separated by a distractor task. During the learning phase (Fig. 1c), each trial started with a jittered fixation cross (between 500 and 1500 ms) that was followed by a unique action verb displayed on the screen (1500 ms). After presentation of another fixation cross (between 500 and 1500 ms), a picture of an object was presented on the centre of the screen for a minimum of 2 s and a maximum of 10 s. Participants were asked to come up with a vivid mental image that involved the object and the action verb presented in the current trial. They were instructed to press a key (up arrow on the keyboard) as soon as they had a clear association in mind; this button press initiated the onset of the next trial. Participants were made aware during the initial practice that they would later be asked about the object’s perceptual properties, as well as its meaning, and should thus pay attention to details including colour and shape. Within a participant, each semantic category and sub-category (electronic devices, clothes, fruits, vegetables, mammals, birds, insects, and marine animals) was presented equally often at each type of perceptual level (i.e. as a photograph or as a line drawing). The assignment of action verbs to objects for associative learning was random, and the occurrence of the semantic and perceptual object categories was equally distributed over the first and the second half of the experiment in order to avoid random sequences with overly strong clustering.

After each learning phase, participants performed a distractor task where they were asked to classify a random number (between 1 and 99) on the screen as odd or even. The task was self-paced and they were instructed to accomplish as many trials as they could in 45 s. At the end of the distractor task, they received feedback about their accuracy (i.e., how many trials they performed correctly in this block).

The retrieval phase (Fig. 1c) started following the distractor task. Each trial began with a jittered fixation cross (between 500 and 1500 ms), followed by a question screen asking either about the semantic (animate vs. inanimate) or perceptual (photograph vs. line drawing) features for the upcoming trial, just like in the visual perception version of the task. The question screen was displayed for 3 s by itself, and then one of the verbs presented in the directly preceding learning phase appeared above the two responses. We asked participants to bring back to mind the object that had been associated with this word and to answer the question as fast as possible by selecting the correct response alternative (left or right keyboard press). If they were unable to retrieve the object, participants were asked to press the down arrow. The next trial began as soon as an answer was selected. At the end of each retrieval block, a feedback screen showing the percentage of accurate responses was displayed.

Throughout the retrieval test, we probed memory for all word–object associations learned in the immediately preceding encoding phase in pseudorandom order. Each word–object association was tested twice, once together with a semantic and once with a perceptual question, with a minimum distance of two intervening trials. In addition, we controlled that the first question for half of the associations was semantic, and perceptual for the other half. Like in the visual RT task, the response options for “animate” and “photograph” responses were always located on the right side of the screen. In total, including instructions, a practice block and the 16 learning-distractor-retrieval blocks, the experiment took ~60 min.

For RT analyses we only used correct trials, and excluded all trials with an RT that exceeded the average over subjects by ±2.5 SDs.

Procedure for Experiment 2—Visual reaction time task

Experiment 2 was very similar in design and procedures to Experiment 1, and we therefore only describe the differences between the two experiments in the following.

The second experiment started with a familiarisation phase where all objects were presented sequentially. In each trial of this phase, a jittered fixation cross (between 500 and 1500 ms) was followed by one screen that showed the photograph and line drawing version of one object simultaneously, next to each other. During the presentation of this screen (2.5 s) participants were asked to overtly name the object. After a jittered fixation cross (between 500 and 1500 ms), the name of the object was presented.

After this familiarisation phase, the experiment followed the same procedures as the visual reaction time task in Experiment 1 except for the following changes. Objects were overlaid onto a coloured background scene (1600 × 900 pixels). Also, each object (286 × 286 pixels) was probed only once, either together with a perceptual question, a semantic question (like above), or a contextual question asking whether the background scene was indoor or outdoor. For the current purpose we only describe the RTs to object-related questions in the Results section. Another minor difference to Experiment 1 was that in this version of the task, the question screen was displayed for 4 s, and the two options to answer during stimulus presentation were removed from the screen as soon as the reminder appeared.

Procedure for Experiment 2—Memory reaction time task

The memory reaction time task in Experiment 2 also included, during the associative learning phase, a background scene (1600 × 900 pixels) that was shown on the screen behind each object (286 × 286 pixels), and participants were asked to remember the word–background–object combination. In this version of the task, each word–object association was tested only once, together with either a perceptual question about the object, a semantic question about the object, or a contextual question regarding the background scene (indoor or outdoor). Therefore, one-third of the objects were tested with a semantic question, one-third with a perceptual question, and one-third with a contextual question. Again, context was not further taken into account in the present analyses.

Procedure for Experiment 3—EEG

Following the EEG set-up, instructions were given to participants and two blocks of practice were completed. The task procedure of the EEG experiment was similar to the memory task in Experiments 1 and 2 except for the retrieval phase (Fig. 3a). Each block started with a learning phase where participants created associations between overall eight action verbs and objects. After a 40 s distractor task, participants’ memory for these associations was tested in a cued recall test. In total, the experiment was composed of 16 blocks of eight associations each.

Each trial of the retrieval test started with a jittered fixation cross (500–1500 ms), followed by the presentation of one of the action verbs presented during the learning phase as a reminder. Participants were asked to visualise the object associated with this action verb as vividly and in as much detail as possible while the cue was on the screen. To capture the moment of retrieval, participants were asked to press the up-arrow key as soon as they had the object back in mind; or the down-arrow if they could not remember the object. This reminder was presented on the screen for a minimum of 2 s and until a response was made (maximum 7 s). Immediately afterwards, a blank square with the same size as the original image was displayed for 3 s. During this time, participants were asked to “mentally visualise the originally associated object on the blank square space”. After a short interval where only the fixation cross was present (500–1500 ms), a question screen was displayed for 10 s or until the participant’s response, asking about perceptual (photograph vs. line drawing) or semantic (animate vs. inanimate) features of the retrieved representation, like in the behavioural tasks. However, in this case both types of questions were always asked on the same trial, and they were asked at the end of the trial rather than before the appearance of the reminder. The first question was semantic in half of the trials, and perceptual in the other half. Therefore, each retrieval phase consisted of eight trials where we tested all verb–object associations learned in the same block in random order.

Data collection (behavioural and EEG)

Behavioural response recording and stimulus presentation were performed using Psychophysics Toolbox Version 353 running under MATLAB 2014b (MathWorks). For response inputs we used a computer keyboard where directional arrows were selected as response buttons.

EEG data was acquired using a BioSemi Active-Two amplifier with 128 sintered Ag/AgCl active electrodes. Through a second computer the signal was recorded at a 1024 Hz sampling rate by means of the ActiView recording software (BioSemi, Amsterdam, the Netherlands). For all three experiments it was not possible for the experimenters to be blind to the conditions during data collection and analysis.

GLMM analyses

Generalised linear mixed models (GLMMs) were used to test our alternative hypotheses for accuracy (all experiments), RTs (Experiments 1 and 2), and the relative timing of EEG classifier fidelity (d value) peaks (Experiment 3). We chose GLMMs instead of more commonly used GLM-based models (i.e., ANOVAs or t-tests) because they make fewer assumptions about the distribution of the data, are better suited to model RT-like data24 including our d-value peaks, and can accurately model proportional data that are bound between 0 and 1 (like memory accuracy). Our conditions of interest were modelled as fixed effects in the GLMM. Unless otherwise mentioned, these were the type of task (visual perception vs. memory retrieval) and the type of feature probed (perceptual vs. semantic). Our central reverse processing hypothesis was tested by an interaction contrast between the factors type of task and question type. Two further planned comparisons were then conducted to test if an interaction was driven by effects in the expected direction (e.g., RTs perceptual < semantic during visual perception, and semantic < perceptual during memory retrieval). For all analyses, participant ID (including intercept) was modelled as a random factor. Wherever possible, we also included slope as a random factor because GLMMs that do not take into account this factor tend to overestimate effects (that is, they are overly liberal54). In all cases, we used a compound symmetry structure based on theoretical assumptions and AIC and BIC values. We would like to emphasise that all of the effects reported as significant in the Results section remain significant (with a tendency for even stronger effects) when excluding the random factor slope, but we chose to report the results from the more conservative analysis.

Due to the data structure (specifically, the Hessian matrix not being positive definite), slope as a random effect could not be modelled in two of the analyses in Experiment 3: (i) when analysing the interaction between type of task and type of classifier as predictive factor for EEG classifier peaks; and (ii) when testing behavioural accuracy. In these two cases, the results are reported for GLMMs that do not include slope as a random factor. For the interaction analysis in (i), we also had to apply a linear transformation to the data, because the d-values during encoding and retrieval (which are compared directly in the interaction contrast) differed too much in scale. Data was thus z-scored to avoid errors calculating the Hessian matrix, and a constant value of 1000 ms was added to each value to avoid negative values in our target variable.

For all accuracy analyses we used a binomial distribution with a logistic link function. All models for analysing RTs and d value peaks used a gamma probability distribution and an identity link function. The choice of a gamma distribution was justified because in all cases it fit our single trial distributions better than alternative models, for example inverse Gaussian or normal distributions (evidence from AIC and BIC available on request).

Clustered Wilcoxon signed rank test

To compare the pairwise differences between perceptual and semantic d value peaks in each encoding or retrieval trial (Experiment 3), and test whether the median of these differences deviates from zero in the expected direction (that is, perceptual < semantic during encoding, and semantic < perceptual during retrieval), we used a one-tailed Wilcoxon signed rank test that clustered the data per participant, using random permutations (2000 repetitions). This analysis was run using the R package “clusrank”26.

EEG pre-processing

EEG data was pre-processed using the Fieldtrip toolbox (version from 3 August, 2017) for MATLAB55. Data recorded during the associative learning (encoding) phase was epoched into trials starting 500 ms before stimulus onset and lasting until 1500 ms after stimulus offset. The resulting signal was baseline corrected based on pre-stimulus signal (−500 ms to onset). Retrieval epochs contained segments from 4000 ms before until 500 ms post-response. Since the post-response signal during retrieval will likely still contain task-relevant (i.e., object specific) information, we baseline-corrected the signal based on the whole trial. Both datasets were filtered using a low-pass filter at 100 Hz and a high-pass filter at 0.1 Hz. To reduce line noise at 50 Hz we band-stop filtered the signal between 48 and 52 Hz. The signal was then visually inspected and all epochs that contained coarse artefacts were removed. As a result, a minimum of 92 and a maximum of 124 trials remained per participant for the encoding phase, and a range between 80 and 120 trials per subject remained for retrieval. Independent component analysis was then used to remove eye-blink and horizontal eye movement artefacts; this was followed by an interpolation of noisy channels. Finally, all data was referenced to a common-average-reference (CAR).

Time-resolved multivariate decoding

First, to further increase the signal to noise ratio for multivariate decoding, we smoothed our pre-processed EEG time courses using a Gaussian kernel with a full-width at half-maximum of 24 ms. Time-resolved decoding via LDA using shrinkage regularisation56 was then carried out using custom-written code in MATLAB 2014b (MathWorks). Two independent classifiers were applied to each given time window and each trial (see Fig. 3b): one to classify the perceptual category (photograph or line drawing) and one to classify the semantic category (animate or inanimate). In both decoding analyses, we used undersampling after artefact rejection (i.e. for the category with more trials we randomly selected the same number of trials as available in the smallest category). The pre-processed raw amplitudes on the 128 EEG channels, at a given time point, were used as features for the classifier. LDA classification was performed separately for each participant and time point using a leave-one-out cross-validation approach. This procedure resulted in a decision value (d value) for each trial and time point, where the sign indicates in which category the observation had been classified (e.g., − for photographs and + for line drawings in the perceptual classifier), and the value of d indicates the distance to the hyper-plane that divided the two categories (with the hyper-plane being 0). This distance to the hyper-plane provided us with a single trial time-resolved value that indicates how confident the classifier was at assigning a given object to a given category. In order to use the resulting d values for further analysis, the sign of the d values in one category was inverted, resulting in d values that always reflected correct classification if they had a positive value, and increasingly confident classification with increasingly higher values.

Our main intention was to identify the specific moment within a given trial at which each of the two classifiers showed the highest fidelity, and to then compare the temporal order of the perceptual and semantic peaks. We thus found the maximum positive d value in each trial, separately for the semantic and perceptual classifiers. The time window used for d value peak selection covered 3 s prior to participants’ response and, based on behavioural RTs, only trials with an RT ≥ 3 s were included (rejecting a total of 1459 trials on a group level). For all further analyses we only used peaks with a value exceeding the 95th percentile of the classifier chance distribution (see section on bootstrapping below), such as to minimise the risk of including meaningless noise peaks. The resulting output from this approach allowed us to track and compare the temporal “emergence” of perceptual and semantic classification within each single-trial. When a peak for a given condition did not exceed the 95th percentile threshold, we did not include the trial in further analyses. For encoding trials, including all participants, we excluded 1.77 per cent of the trials based on this restriction. In the case of retrieval trials, all maximum peaks found exceeded the value of the threshold. In addition to this single-trial analysis, we also calculated the average d value peak latency for perceptual and semantic classification in each participant to compare the two average temporal distributions. Note, however, that many factors could obscure differences between semantic and perceptual peaks when using this average approach, including variance in processing speed across trials, e.g. for more or less difficult recalls. We therefore believe that the single trial values are more sensitive to differences in timing between the reactivated features. We used these single trial classifier peaks as dependent variables in a GLMM to test for an interaction between two fixed effects: the type of feature (perceptual vs. semantic) and the type of task (encoding vs. retrieval). Significant interaction results were followed up by planned comparisons to test for a significant effect of feature (perceptual vs. semantic) separately for encoding (expecting an earlier timing of perceptual than semantic peaks) and retrieval (expecting an earlier timing of semantic than perceptual peaks). Clustered Wilcoxon signed rank tests were then carried out to further corroborate the relative timing of the single-trial classifier peaks.

Generating an empirical null distribution for the classifier

Previous work has shown that the true level of chance performance of a classifier can differ substantially from its theoretical chance level that is usually assumed to be 1/number of categories57,58,59. A known empirical null distribution of d values would allow us to determine a threshold for considering only those d value peaks as significant whose values are higher than the 95th percentile of this null distribution. We generated such an empirical null distribution of d values by repeating our classifier analysis with randomly shuffled labels a number of times, and combined this with a bootstrapping approach, as detailed in the following.

As a first step, we generated a set of d value outputs that were derived from carrying out the same decoding procedure as for the real data (including the leave-one-out cross-validation), but using category labels that were randomly shuffled at each repetition. This procedure was carried out independently per participant. On each repetition, before starting the time-resolved LDA, all trials were randomly divided into two categories with the constraint that each group contained a similar number of photographs and line drawings, and approximately the same amount of animate and inanimate objects (the difference in trial numbers was smaller than 8%). The output of one such repetition per participant was one d value per trial and time-point, just as in the real analysis. This procedure was conducted 150 times per participant for object perception (encoding) and retrieval, respectively, with a new random trial split and random label assignment on each repetition. For each participant we thus had a total of 151 classification outputs, one using the real labels, and 150 using the randomly shuffled labels.

Second, to estimate our classification chance distribution for the random-effects (i.e., trial-averaged) peak analyses, we used the 151 classification outputs from all participants in a bootstrapping procedure60. On each of the bootstrapped repetitions, we randomly selected one of the 151 classification outputs (150 from shuffled labels classifiers and one from a real labels classifier) per participant, and calculated the d value group average based on this random selection for each given time point. The real data was included to make our bootstrapping analyses more conservative, since under the null hypothesis, the real classifier output could have been obtained just by chance. This procedure was repeated with replacement 10,000 times. To generate different distributions for the perceptual and semantic classifiers, we ran this bootstrapping approach two times: once where the real labels output from each subject came from the semantic classifier, and once where the real d values came from the perceptual classifier.

Univariate ERP analysis

A series of cluster-based permutation tests (Monte Carlo, 2000 repetitions, clusters with a minimum of two neighbouring channels within the FieldTrip software) was carried out in order to test for differences in ERPs between the two perceptual (photograph vs. line drawing) and the two semantic (animate vs. inanimate) categories, controlling for multiple comparisons across time and electrodes. First, we contrasted ERPs during object presentation in the encoding phase in the time interval from stimulus onset until 500 ms post-stimulus. We then carried out the same type of perceptual and semantic ERP contrasts during retrieval, in this case aligning all trials to the time of the button press. We used the full time window from 3000 ms before until 100 ms after the button press, but we further subdivided this time window into smaller epochs of 300 ms to run a series of T tests, again using cluster statistics to correct for multiple comparisons across time and electrodes. For all four contrasts, we reported the cluster with the lowest P value.

We were mainly interested in the temporal order of the ERP peaks that differentiated between perceptual and semantic classes during encoding and retrieval. The above procedure resulted in four statistically meaningful clusters across subjects: one each differentiating perceptual categories during encoding, semantic categories during encoding, perceptual categories during retrieval, and semantic categories during retrieval. To statistically test for an interaction in this timing of these clusters, we extracted the time point of the maximum ERP difference for each individual participant, restricted to the electrodes showing an overall cluster effect but over the entire time window for encoding and retrieval. These time points were entered into a 2 × 2 within-subjects ANOVA with the factors type of feature (perceptual or semantic), and type of task (encoding or retrieval), with the only planned comparison in this analysis being the interaction contrast.

Code availability

The custom code used in this study is available in https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/327EK.

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