Characterizing the Ventral Visual Stream with Response-Optimized Neural Encoding Models

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 (NeurIPS 2022) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Meenakshi Khosla, Keith Jamison, Amy Kuceyeski, Mert Sabuncu


Decades of experimental research based on simple, abstract stimuli has revealed the coding principles of the ventral visual processing hierarchy, from the presence of edge detectors in the primary visual cortex to the selectivity for complex visual categories in the anterior ventral stream. However, these studies are, by construction, constrained by their $\textit{a priori}$ hypotheses. Furthermore, beyond the early stages, precise neuronal tuning properties and representational transformations along the ventral visual pathway remain poorly understood. In this work, we propose to employ response-optimized encoding models trained solely to predict the functional MRI activation, in order to gain insights into the tuning properties and representational transformations in the series of areas along the ventral visual pathway. We demonstrate the strong generalization abilities of these models on artificial stimuli and novel datasets. Intriguingly, we find that response-optimized models trained towards the ventral-occipital and lateral-occipital areas, but not early visual areas, can recapitulate complex visual behaviors like object categorization and perceived image-similarity in humans. We further probe the trained networks to reveal representational biases in different visual areas and generate experimentally testable hypotheses. Our analyses suggest a shape-based processing along the ventral visual stream and provide a unified picture of multiple neural phenomena characterized over the last decades with controlled fMRI studies.