The human visual system is optimised for processing the spatial information in natural visual images

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Abstract

A fundamental tenet of visual science is that the detailed properties of visual systems are not capricious accidents, but are closely matched by evolution and neonatal experience to the environments and lifestyles in which those visual systems must work. This has been shown most convincingly for fish and insects. For mammalian vision, however, this tenet is based more upon theoretical arguments than upon direct observations. Here, we describe experiments that require human observers to discriminate between pictures of slightly different faces or objects. These are produced by a morphing technique that allows small, quantifiable changes to be made in the stimulus images. The independent variable is designed to give increasing deviation from natural visual scenes, and is a measure of the Fourier composition of the image (its second-order statistics). Performance in these tests was best when the pictures had natural second-order spatial statistics, and degraded when the images were made less natural. Furthermore, performance can be explained with a simple model of contrast coding, based upon the properties of simple cells in the mammalian visual cortex. The findings thus provide direct empirical support for the notion that human spatial vision is optimised to the second-order statistics of the optical environment.

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Párraga, C. A., Troscianko, T., & Tolhurst, D. J. (2000). The human visual system is optimised for processing the spatial information in natural visual images. Current Biology, 10(1), 35–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0960-9822(99)00262-6

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