Expectation-based gist facilitation: Rapid scene understanding and the role of top-down information

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Scene meaning is processed rapidly, with “gist” extracted even when presentation duration spans a few dozen milliseconds. This has led some to suggest a primacy of bottom-up information. However, gist research has typically relied on showing successions of unrelated scene images, contrary to our everyday experience in which the world unfolds around us in a predictable manner. Thus, we investigated whether top-down information—in the form of observers’ predictions of an upcoming scene—facilitates gist processing. Within each trial, participants (N = 370) experienced a series of images, organized to represent an approach to a destination (e.g., walking down a sidewalk), followed by a target scene either congruous or incongruous with the expected destination (e.g., a store interior or a bedroom). A series of behavioral experiments revealed that appropriate expectations facilitated gist processing; inappropriate expectations interfered with gist processing; sequentially-arranged scene images benefitted gist processing when semantically related to the target scene; expectation-based facilitation was most apparent when presentation duration was most curtailed; and findings were not simply the result of response bias. We then investigated the neural correlates of predictability on scene processing using event-related potentials (ERPs) (N = 24). Congruency-related differences were found in a putative scene-selective ERP component, related to integrating visual properties (P2), and in later components related to contextual integration including semantic and syntactic coherence (N400 and P600, respectively). Together, results suggest that in real-world situations, top-down predictions of an upcoming scene influence even the earliest stages of its processing, affecting both the integration of visual properties and meaning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1907–1936
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number7
Early online date19 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2023


  • event-related potentials
  • gist
  • scene processing
  • semantic integration
  • top-down information

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