Sustained Representation of Perspectival Shape

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117 (26):14873–14882 (2020)
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Arguably the most foundational principle in perception research is that our experience of the world goes beyond the retinal image; we perceive the distal environment itself, not the proximal stimulation it causes. Shape may be the paradigm case of such “unconscious inference”: When a coin is rotated in depth, we infer the circular object it truly is, discarding the perspectival ellipse projected on our eyes. But is this really the fate of such perspectival shapes? Or does a tilted coin retain an elliptical appearance even when we know it’s circular? This question has generated heated debate from Locke and Hume to the present; but whereas extant arguments rely primarily on introspection, this problem is also open to empirical test. If tilted coins bear a representational similarity to elliptical objects, then a circular coin should, when rotated, impair search for a distal ellipse. Here, nine experiments demonstrate that this is so, suggesting that perspectival shapes persist in the mind far longer than traditionally assumed. Subjects saw search arrays of three-dimensional “coins,” and simply had to locate a distally elliptical coin. Surprisingly, rotated circular coins slowed search for elliptical targets, even when subjects clearly knew the rotated coins were circular. This pattern arose with static and dynamic cues, couldn’t be explained by strategic responding or unfamiliarity, generalized across shape classes, and occurred even with sustained viewing. Finally, these effects extended beyond artificial displays to real-world objects viewed in naturalistic, full-cue conditions. We conclude that objects have a remarkably persistent dual character: their objective shape “out there,” and their perspectival shape “from here.”

Author Profiles

Jorge Morales
Northeastern University
Chaz Firestone
Johns Hopkins University


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