Holistic processing as a hallmark of perceptual expertise for nonface categories including Chinese characters

Alan C.-N. WONG*, Cindy M. BUKACH, Janet HSIAO, Emma GREENSPON, Emily AHERN, Yiran DUAN, Kelvin F.H. LUI

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

67 Citations (Scopus)


Holistic processing has been associated with perceptual expertise in different domains involving faces, cars, fingerprints, musical notes, English words, etc. Curiously Chinese characters are regarded as an exception, as indicated by reduced holistic processing found for experts with the Chinese writing system as compared with novices. Werevisit the issue and examine one type of holistic processing, the obligatory attention to all parts of an object, using the composite paradigm from face perception literature. Chinese readers (experts) and non-Chinese readers (novices) matched the target halves of two characters while ignoring the irrelevant halves. We introduced differential response deadlines for experts and novices in order to match their performance level and to avoid ceiling performance for experts. Both experts and novices showed holistic processing, irrespective of the character structure (left-right or top-bottom) or presentation sequence (sequential or simultaneous matching). Experts' holistic processing also showed some sensitivity to the amount of experience with the characters, as it was larger for characters than noncharacters in some situations. Novices, however, did not show a systematic difference, suggesting that their effects were more related to their inefficient decomposition of a novel, complex pattern into parts. The current results, together with other recent findings of holistic processing for English words and musical notes, indicate that the development of holistic processing is not restricted to faces and objects. Instead it may be a general marker of expertise across a wider domain of visual discrimination than previously thought, including alphabetic and nonalphabetic writing systems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7
JournalJournal of Vision
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

This research was supported by grants from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Direct Grant 2020939) to Alan Wong, the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (General Research Fund 452209) to Alan Wong and Cindy Bukach, and the Faculty Research Committee of the University of Richmond to Cindy Bukach, as well as the Undergraduate Research Committee of the University of Richmond to Emma Greenspon, Emily Ahern and Yiran Duan.


  • Chinese characters
  • Holistic processing
  • Letter perception
  • Perceptual expertise
  • Word recognition


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