Visual features as stepping stones toward semantics: Explaining object similarity in IT and perception with non-negative least squares

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Object similarity, in brain representations and conscious perception, must reflect a combination of the visual appearance of the objects on the one hand and the categories the objects belong to on the other. Indeed, visual object features and category membership have each been shown to contribute to the object representation in human inferior temporal (IT) cortex, as well as to object-similarity judgments. However, the explanatory power of features and categories has not been directly compared. Here, we investigate whether the IT object representation and similarity judgments are best explained by a categorical or a feature-based model. We use rich models (>100 dimensions) generated by human observers for a set of 96 real-world object images. The categorical model consists of a hierarchically nested set of category labels (such as "human", "mammal", and "animal"). The feature-based model includes both object parts (such as "eye", "tail", and "handle") and other descriptive features (such as "circular", "green", and "stubbly"). We used non-negative least squares to fit the models to the brain representations (estimated from functional magnetic resonance imaging data) and to similarity judgments. Model performance was estimated on held-out images not used in fitting. Both models explained significant variance in IT and the amounts explained were not significantly different. The combined model did not explain significant additional IT variance, suggesting that it is the shared model variance (features correlated with categories, categories correlated with features) that best explains IT. The similarity judgments were almost fully explained by the categorical model, which explained significantly more variance than the feature-based model. The combined model did not explain significant additional variance in the similarity judgments. Our findings suggest that IT uses features that help to distinguish categories as stepping stones toward a semantic representation. Similarity judgments contain additional categorical variance that is not explained by visual features, reflecting a higher-level more purely semantic representation.