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The Two Sides of Neural Habituation in Visual Processing: Enhanced Novelty Detection Versus Repetition Deficits

Many cognitive theories explain task-specific behaviors without reference to neural mechanisms. However, behavior arises from neurons—and different experimental effects can derive from a common neural basis. Huber and O’Reilly (2003) proposed that neural habituation arising from short-term synaptic depression may underlie a variety of behavioral effects involving the rapid presentation of stimuli. Neural habituation causes the response to a repeated stimulus to be dampened, promoting increased novelty detection and repetition blindness alike. Here, I examine neural habituation’s ability to cause both benefits and deficits through two series of experiments. The first, focusing on neural habituation’s benefits, used a same/different word priming task, applying support vector machine (SVM) classification of EEG data, ERP analyses focused on the N400, and neural network simulations fit to behavioral data to provide a priori predictions of ERP effects. Subjects made same/different judgements to a response word in relation to an immediately preceding brief target word; prime durations were short (50ms) or long (400ms), with the longer duration assumed to generate more habituation. Following long duration primes, correct “different” judgments increased, evidencing enhanced novelty detection. The neural network implementing the habituation theory predicted behavioral effects and ERP effects for the P100, N170, and N400. The second series of experiments, focusing on the deficits generated by neural habituation, applied the habituation model to the Negative Compatibility Effect (NCE), which is slower reaction times (RTs) to report the direction of a target arrow that follows a matching prime arrow. The causes of the NCE have been debated, and several task-specific theories have attempted to explain it, yet none has been able to account for the full range of effects. Here, a novel variant of the NCE task specified the perceptual dynamics of orientation priming as measured with threshold accuracy. The neural habituation model was fit to these results and applied to the NCE literature, revealing that the NCE can be explained by repetition deficits caused by neural habituation, which affects the response acquisition process. The models utilized across all experiments shared most of their parameter values, demonstrating neural habituation’s ability to provide unified accounts of different paradigms.
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