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J Vis. 2007 Jan 16;7(1):4.

Parameter learning but not structure learning: a Bayesian network model of constraints on early perceptual learning.

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Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Center for Visual Science, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627-0268, USA.


Visual scientists have shown that people are capable of perceptual learning in a large variety of circumstances. Are there constraints on such learning? We propose a new constraint on early perceptual learning, namely, that people are capable of parameter learning-they can modify their knowledge of the prior probabilities of scene variables or of the statistical relationships among scene and perceptual variables that are already considered to be potentially dependent-but they are not capable of structure learning-they cannot learn new relationships among variables that are not considered to be potentially dependent, even when placed in novel environments in which these variables are strongly related. These ideas are formalized using the notation of Bayesian networks. We report the results of five experiments that evaluate whether subjects can demonstrate cue acquisition, which means that they can learn that a sensory signal is a cue to a perceptual judgment. In Experiment 1, subjects were placed in a novel environment that resembled natural environments in the sense that it contained systematic relationships among scene and perceptual variables that which are normally dependent. In this case, cue acquisition requires parameter learning and, as predicted, subjects succeeded in learning a new cue. In Experiments 2-5, subjects were placed in novel environments that did not resemble natural environments-they contained systematic relationships among scene and perceptual variables that are not normally dependent. Cue acquisition requires structure learning in these cases. Consistent with our hypothesis, subjects failed to learn new cues in Experiments 2-5. Overall, the results suggest that the mechanisms of early perceptual learning are biased such that people can only learn new contingencies between scene and sensory variables that are considered to be potentially dependent.

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