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Perceptual and categorical decision making: goal-relevant representation of two domains at different levels of abstraction

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To date it has been unclear whether perceptual decision making and rule-based categorization reflect activation of similar cognitive processes and brain regions. On one hand, both map potentially ambiguous stimuli to a smaller set of motor responses. On the other hand, decisions about perceptual salience typically concern concrete sensory representations derived from a noisy stimulus, while categorization is typically conceptualized as an abstract decision about membership in a potentially arbitrary set. Previous work has primarily examined these types of decisions in isolation. Here we independently varied salience in both the perceptual and categorical domains in a random dot-motion framework by manipulating dot-motion coherence and motion direction relative to a category boundary, respectively. Behavioral and modeling results suggest that categorical (more abstract) information, which is more relevant to subjects' decisions, is weighted more strongly than perceptual (more concrete) information, although they also have significant interactive effects on choice. Within the brain, BOLD activity within frontal regions strongly differentiated categorical salience and weakly differentiated perceptual salience; however, the interaction between these two factors activated similar frontoparietal brain networks. Notably, explicitly evaluating feature interactions revealed a frontal-parietal dissociation: parietal activity varied strongly with both features, but frontal activity varied with the combined strength of the information that defined the motor response. Together, these data demonstrate that frontal regions are driven by decision-relevant features and argue that perceptual decisions and rule-based categorization reflect similar cognitive processes and activate similar brain networks to the extent that they define decision-relevant stimulus-response mappings.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Here we study the behavioral and neural dynamics of perceptual categorization when decision information varies in multiple domains at different levels of abstraction. Behavioral and modeling results suggest that categorical (more abstract) information is weighted more strongly than perceptual (more concrete) information but that perceptual and categorical domains interact to influence decisions. Frontoparietal brain activity during categorization flexibly represents decision-relevant features and highlights significant dissociations in frontal and parietal activity during decision making.

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