Virtually all studies of object recognition have focused on the geometric structure of objects. Very few have focused on the recognition of the material properties of objects from surface-based visual cues. Even when the processing of surface-based cues, such as color and texture, has been studied, it has been in the context of using these cues to reveal the geometric structure of objects. In other words, research has focused on the recognition of things rather than the stuff from which they are made. Nevertheless, knowledge about the stuff (i.e. the material properties of objects) has, by itself, profound implications for understanding what an object is. In a recent line of work, my graduate student, Jon Cant (now at Harvard), and I have been using fMRI to examine the areas in the ventral stream of visual processing that are specialized for perceiving the material properties of objects. We first of all showed that the processing of object form was largely localized to the lateral occipital area in the ventral stream, whereas the processing of surface properties was localized to more medial areas within the fusiform and parahippocampal regions. In later experiments, we showed that the processing of object form and the processing of material properties are largely independent of one another (that is, one could attend to the form of an object without any interference from changes in the surface properties, and vice versa).
Cant, J.S. & Goodale, M.A. (2007). Attention to form or surface properties modulates different regions of human occipitotemporal cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 17, 713-731. Download pdf
Cant, J.S. & Goodale, M.A. (2011). Scratching beneath the surface: New insights into the functional properties of the lateral occipital area and parahippocampal place area. Journal of Neuroscience, 31, 8248-8258. Download pdf