Categorical perception is the experience of percept invariances in sensory phenomena that can be varied along a continuum. Multiple views of a face, for example, are mapped onto a common identity, visually distinct objects such as cars are mapped into the same category and distinct speech tokens are identified as belonging to the same phonetic distinct and separate percept. Within a particular part of the continuum, the percepts are perceived as the same, with a sharp change of perception at the position of the continuum where there is identity change. Categorical perception is opposed to continuous perception, the perception of different sensory phenomena as being located on a smooth continuum.
How the neural systems in the brain engages in this many-to-one mapping is a major issue in cognitive neuroscience. Categorical perception (CP) can be inborn or can be induced by learning. Initially it was taken to be peculiar to speech and color perception. However CP turns out to general, and related to how neural networks in our brains detect the features that allow us to sort the things in the world into separate categories by "warping" perceived similarities and differences so that they compress some things into the same category and separate others into different ones.
An area in the left prefrontal cortex has been localized as the place in the brain responsible for phonetic categorical perception and possibly other types of categorical perception.
Read more about Gradience: Categorization, The Motor Theory of Speech Perception, The Modern Definition of Categorical Perception, Computational and Neural Models, Brain Basis, Language-induced Categorical Perception, Emotion and Categorical Perception
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