blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed
The paper reveals that a vague background context is more influential and helps us to fill in more blanks than a bright, well-defined context. This may explain why we are prone to ‘see’ imaginary shapes in the shadows when the light is poor.
Eighteen observers were asked to concentrate on the centre of a black computer screen. Every time a buzzer sounded they pressed one of two buttons to record whether or not they had just seen a small, dim, grey ‘target’ rectangle in the middle of the screen. It did not appear every time, but when it did appear it was displayed for just 80 milliseconds (80 one thousandths of a second).
“People saw the target much more often if it appeared in the middle of a vertical line of similar looking, grey rectangles, compared to when it appeared in the middle of a pattern of bright, white rectangles. They even registered ‘seeing’ the target when it wasn’t actually there,” said Professor Zhaoping, lead author of the paper. “This is because people are mentally better prepared to see something vague when the surrounding context is also vague. It made sense for them to see it — so that’s what happened. When the target didn’t match the expectations set by the surrounding context, they saw it much less often.
“Illusionists have been alive to this phenomenon for years,” continued Professor Zhaoping. “When you see them throw a ball into the air, followed by a second ball, and then a third ball which ‘magically’ disappears, you wonder how they did it. In truth, there’s often no third ball – it’s just our brain being deceived by the context, telling us that we really did see three balls launched into the air, one after the other.
“Contrary to what one might expect, it is a vague rather than a bright and clearly visible context that most strongly permits our beliefs to override the evidence and fill in the blanks. In fact, a bright and clearly visible context actually overrides the evidence in the opposite direction – suppressing our ‘seeing’ of the vague target even when it is present.
“Mathematical modelling suggests that visual inference through context is processed in the brain beyond the primary visual cortex. By starting with a relatively simple experiment such as this, where visual input can be more easily and systematically manipulated, we are gaining a better understanding of how context influences what we see. Further studies along these lines can hopefully enable us to dissect the workings behind more complex and wondrous illusions.”
PLoS Computational Biology Vol. 4, No. 2, e14 doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.0040014
Zhaoping L, Jingling L
Visual object recognition and sensitivity to image features are largely influenced by contextual inputs. We study influences by contextual bars on the bias to perceive or infer the presence of a target bar, rather than on the sensitivity to image features. Human observers judged from a briefly presented stimulus whether a target bar of a known orientation and shape is present at the center of a display, given a weak or missing input contrast at the target location with or without a context of other bars. Observers are more likely to perceive a target when the context has a weaker rather than stronger contrast. When the context can perceptually group well with the would-be target, weak contrast contextual bars bias the observers to perceive a target relative to the condition without contexts, as if to fill in the target. Meanwhile, high-contrast contextual bars, regardless of whether they group well with the target, bias the observers to perceive no target. A Bayesian model of visual inference is shown to account for the data well, illustrating that the context influences the perception in two ways: (1) biasing observers’ prior belief that a target should be present according to visual grouping principles, and (2) biasing observers’ internal model of the likely input contrasts caused by a target bar. According to this model, our data suggest that the context does not influence the perceived target contrast despite its influence on the bias to perceive the target’s presence, thereby suggesting that cortical areas beyond the primary visual cortex are responsible for the visual inferences.