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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Feb 28;109(9):3593-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1120118109. Epub 2012 Feb 13.

Dissociable prior influences of signal probability and relevance on visual contrast sensitivity.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3UD, United Kingdom.

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  • Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Apr 17;109(16):6354.


According to signal detection theoretical analyses, visual signals occurring at a cued location are detected more accurately, whereas frequently occurring ones are reported more often but are not better distinguished from noise. However, conventional analyses that estimate sensitivity and bias by comparing true- and false-positive rates offer limited insights into the mechanisms responsible for these effects. Here, we reassessed the prior influences of signal probability and relevance on visual contrast detection using a reverse-correlation technique that quantifies how signal-like fluctuations in noise predict trial-to-trial variability in choice discarded by conventional analyses. This approach allowed us to estimate separately the sensitivity of true and false positives to parametric changes in signal energy. We found that signal probability and relevance both increased energy sensitivity, but in dissociable ways. Cues predicting the relevant location increased primarily the sensitivity of true positives by suppressing internal noise during signal processing, whereas cues predicting greater signal probability increased both the frequency and the sensitivity of false positives by biasing the baseline activity of signal-selective units. We interpret these findings in light of "predictive-coding" models of perception, which propose separable top-down influences of expectation (probability driven) and attention (relevance driven) on bottom-up sensory processing.

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