Visual recognition: as soon as you know it is there, you know what it is.
What is the sequence of processing steps involved in visual object recognition? We varied the exposure duration of natural images and measured subjects' performance on three different tasks, each designed to tap a different candidate component process of object recognition. For each exposure duration, accuracy was lower and reaction time longer on a within-category identification task (e.g., distinguishing pigeons from other birds) than on a perceptual categorization task (e.g., birds vs. cars). However, strikingly, at each exposure duration, subjects performed just as quickly and accurately on the categorization task as they did on a task requiring only object detection: By the time subjects knew an image contained an object at all, they already knew its category. These findings place powerful constraints on theories of object recognition.