Retinotopic adaptation reveals distinct categories of causal perception

Cognition 203 (C):104339 (2020)
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Abstract

We can perceive not only low-level features of events such as color and motion, but also seemingly higher-level properties such as causality. A prototypical example of causal perception is the ”launching effect’: one object moves toward a stationary second object until they are adjacent, at which point A stops and B starts moving in the same direction. Beyond these motions themselves --- and regardless of any higher-level beliefs --- this display induces a vivid visual impression of causality, wherein A is seen to cause B’s motion. Do such percepts reflect a unitary category of visual processing, or might there be multiple distinct forms of causal perception? While launching is often simply equated with causal perception, researchers have sometimes described other phenomena such as ”triggering’ and ”entraining’. We used psychophysical methods to determine whether these labels really carve visual processing at its joints, and how putatively different forms of causal perception relate to each other. Previous research demonstrated retinotopically specific adaptation to causality: exposure to causal launching makes subsequent ambiguous events in that same location more likely to be seen as non-causal ”passing’. Here, after replicating this effect, we show that exposure to triggering also yields retinotopically specific adaptation for subsequent ambiguous launching displays, but that exposure to entraining does not. Collectively, these results reveal that visual processing distinguishes some types of causal interactions.

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