The highs and lows of object impossibility: effects of spatial frequency on holistic processing of impossible objects

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Holistic processing, the decoding of a stimulus as a unified whole, is a basic characteristic of object perception. Recent research using Garner’s speeded classification task has shown that this processing style is utilized even for impossible objects that contain an inherent spatial ambiguity. In particular, similar Garner interference effects were found for possible and impossible objects, indicating similar holistic processing styles for the two object categories. In the present study, we further investigated the perceptual mechanisms that mediate such holistic representation of impossible objects. We relied on the notion that, whereas information embedded in the high-spatial-frequency (HSF) content supports fine-detailed processing of object features, the information conveyed by low spatial frequencies (LSF) is more crucial for the emergence of a holistic shape representation. To test the effects of image frequency on the holistic processing of impossible objects, participants performed the Garner speeded classification task on images of possible and impossible cubes filtered for their LSF and HSF information. For images containing only LSF, similar interference effects were observed for possible and impossible objects, indicating that the two object categories were processed in a holistic manner. In contrast, for the HSF images, Garner interference was obtained only for possible, but not for impossible objects. Importantly, we provided evidence to show that this effect could not be attributed to a lack of sensitivity to object possibility in the LSF images. Particularly, even for full-spectrum images, Garner interference was still observed for both possible and impossible objects. Additionally, performance in an object classification task revealed high sensitivity to object possibility, even for LSF images. Taken together, these findings suggest that the visual system can tolerate the spatial ambiguity typical to impossible objects by relying on information embedded in LSF, whereas HSF information may underlie the visual system’s susceptibility to distortions in objects’ spatial layouts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)297-306
Number of pages10
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2014


  • Garner interference
  • Holistic processing
  • Impossible objects
  • Spatial frequency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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