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Nat Neurosci. 2011 Jun 5;14(7):926-32. doi: 10.1038/nn.2831.

Cardinal rules: visual orientation perception reflects knowledge of environmental statistics.

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Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, New York, USA.


Humans are good at performing visual tasks, but experimental measurements have revealed substantial biases in the perception of basic visual attributes. An appealing hypothesis is that these biases arise through a process of statistical inference, in which information from noisy measurements is fused with a probabilistic model of the environment. However, such inference is optimal only if the observer's internal model matches the environment. We found this to be the case. We measured performance in an orientation-estimation task and found that orientation judgments were more accurate at cardinal (horizontal and vertical) orientations. Judgments made under conditions of uncertainty were strongly biased toward cardinal orientations. We estimated observers' internal models for orientation and found that they matched the local orientation distribution measured in photographs. In addition, we determined how a neural population could embed probabilistic information responsible for such biases.

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