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Vision Res. 2010 Oct 28;50(22):2308-19. doi: 10.1016/j.visres.2010.08.035. Epub 2010 Sep 7.

Signal detection theory, uncertainty, and Poisson-like population codes.

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Baylor College of Medicine, One Baylor Plaza, Houston, TX 77030, USA.


The juxtaposition of established signal detection theory models of perception and more recent claims about the encoding of uncertainty in perception is a rich source of confusion. Are the latter simply a rehash of the former? Here, we make an attempt to distinguish precisely between optimal and probabilistic computation. In optimal computation, the observer minimizes the expected cost under a posterior probability distribution. In probabilistic computation, the observer uses higher moments of the likelihood function of the stimulus on a trial-by-trial basis. Computation can be optimal without being probabilistic, and vice versa. Most signal detection theory models describe optimal computation. Behavioral data only provide evidence for a neural representation of uncertainty if they are best described by a model of probabilistic computation. We argue that single-neuron activity sometimes suffices for optimal computation, but never for probabilistic computation. A population code is needed instead. Not every population code is equally suitable, because nuisance parameters have to be marginalized out. This problem is solved by Poisson-like, but not by Gaussian variability. Finally, we build a dictionary between signal detection theory quantities and Poisson-like population quantities.

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