Task-dependent warping of semantic representations during search for visual action categories
Object and action perception in cluttered dynamic natural scenes relies on efficient allocation of limited brain resources to prioritize the attended targets over distractors. It has been suggested that during visual search for objects, distributed semantic representation of hundreds of object categories is warped to expand the representation of targets. Yet, little is known about whether and where in the brain visual search for action categories modulates semantic representations. To address this fundamental question, we studied brain activity recorded from five subjects (one female) via functional magnetic resonance imaging while they viewed natural movies and searched for either communication or locomotion actions. We find that attention directed to action categories elicits tuning shifts that warp semantic representations broadly across neocortex and that these shifts interact with intrinsic selectivity of cortical voxels for target actions. These results suggest that attention serves to facilitate task performance during social interactions by dynamically shifting semantic selectivity toward target actions and that tuning shifts are a general feature of conceptual representations in the brain.