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Humans can covertly track the position of an object, even if the object is temporarily occluded. What are the neural mechanisms underlying our capacity to track moving objects when there is no physical stimulus for the brain to track? One possibility is that the brain ‘fills-in’ information about imagined objects using internally generated representations similar to those generated by feed-forward perceptual mechanisms. Alternatively, the brain might deploy a higher order mechanism, for example using an object tracking model that integrates visual signals and motion dynamics. In the present study, we used EEG and time-resolved multivariate pattern analyses to investigate the spatial processing of visible and imagined objects. Participants tracked an object that moved in discrete steps around fixation, occupying six consecutive locations. They were asked to imagine that the object continued on the same trajectory after it disappeared and move their attention to the corresponding positions. Time-resolved decoding of EEG data revealed that the location of the visible stimuli could be decoded shortly after image onset, consistent with early retinotopic visual processes. For processing of unseen/imagined positions, the patterns of neural activity resembled stimulus-driven mid-level visual processes, but were detected earlier than perceptual mechanisms, implicating an anticipatory and more variable tracking mechanism. Encoding models revealed that spatial representations were much weaker for imagined than visible stimuli. Monitoring the position of imagined objects thus utilises similar perceptual and attentional processes as monitoring objects that are actually present, but with different temporal dynamics. These results indicate that internally generated representations rely on top-down processes, and their timing is influenced by the predictability of the stimulus.

Original publication




Journal article


Neurons, Behavior, Data analysis, and Theory


The Neurons Behavior Data Analysis and Theory collective

Publication Date