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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Categorical perception

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Abstract Categorical perception (CP) is the phenomenon by which the categories possessed by an observer influences the observers' perception. Experimentally, CP is revealed when an observer's ability to make perceptual discriminations between things is better when those things belong to different categories rather than the same category, controlling for the physical difference between the things. We consider several core questions related to CP: Is it caused by innate and/or learned categories, how early in the information processing stream do categories influence perception, and what is the relation between ongoing linguistic processing and CP? CP for both speech and visual entities are surveyed, as are computational and mathematical models of CP. CP is an important phenomenon in cognitive science because it represents an essential adaptation of perception to support categorizations that an organism needs to make. Sensory signals that could be linearly related to physical qualities are warped in a nonlinear manner, transforming analog inputs into quasi‐digital, quasi‐symbolic encodings. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. This article is categorized under: Psychology > Perception and Psychophysics

An illustration of categorical perception. When an observer looks at objects (chickens) that fall into two or more categories (coops), differences among objects that fall into different categories are exaggerated, and differences among objects that fall into the same category are minimized. Conceived by Robert Goldstone, Made perceptual by Joe Lee.

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Stimuli used by Goldstone.47 Sixteen squares were constructed by combining four values of brightness with four values of size. The letters show the categorizations of the squares when brightness was relevant, and for other participants size was relevant. Categorization training on the shown categories leads to heightened discriminability of pairs of squares that differ on brightness, and is at a peak at the boundary between the As and Bs. Reprinted with permission from the authors.

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As a physical variable (the direction and extent of the second formant transition) describing speech sounds is varied linearly along the horizontal axis, a person's perception relatively rapidly shifts from hearing the sound as a /be/ to hearing it as a /de/, and then rapidly shifts again to hearing it as a /ge/ (upper left panel). The perceiver's ability to discriminate sounds improves as the sounds become less similar—going from discriminations of sounds that differ by one step to two steps to three steps along the horizontal continuum. However, in all cases, discrimination ability peaks near the boundary separating phonemic categories. Reprinted with permission from Liberman et al.13.

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