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Nature. 2007 Apr 19;446(7138):912-5. Epub 2007 Apr 4.

A new perceptual illusion reveals mechanisms of sensory decoding.

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Center for Neural Science, New York University, 4 Washington Place, New York, New York 10003, USA.


Perceptual illusions are usually thought to arise from the way sensory signals are encoded by the brain, and indeed are often used to infer the mechanisms of sensory encoding. But perceptual illusions might also result from the way the brain decodes sensory information, reflecting the strategies that optimize performance in particular tasks. In a fine discrimination task, the most accurate information comes from neurons tuned away from the discrimination boundary, and observers seem to use signals from these 'displaced' neurons to optimize their performance. We wondered whether using signals from these neurons might also bias perception. In a fine direction discrimination task using moving random-dot stimuli, we found that observers' perception of the direction of motion is indeed biased away from the boundary. This misperception can be accurately described by a decoding model that preferentially weights signals from neurons whose responses best discriminate those directions. In a coarse discrimination task, to which a different decoding rule applies, the same stimulus is not misperceived, suggesting that the illusion is a direct consequence of the decoding strategy that observers use to make fine perceptual judgments. The subjective experience of motion is therefore not mediated directly by the responses of sensory neurons, but is only developed after the responses of these neurons are decoded.

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