Contrast, probability, and saccadic latency; evidence for independence of detection and decision

Curr Biol. 2004 Sep 7;14(17):1576-80. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.08.058.


Many factors influence how long it takes to respond to a visual stimulus. The lowest-level factors, such as luminance and contrast, determine how easily different elements of a target can be detected. Higher-level factors are to do with whether these elements constitute a stimulus requiring a response; they include prior probability and urgency. It is natural to think of these two processes, detection and decision, as occurring in series, so that overall reaction time is essentially the sum of the contributions of each stage. Here, measurements of saccadic latency to visual targets whose contrast and prior probability are systematically manipulated demonstrate that there are indeed separable stages of detection and decision. Both can be quantitatively described by rise-to-threshold mechanisms; the average rate of rise of the first is a simple logarithmic function of target contrast, whereas the second shows the linear rise characteristic of the LATER model of neural decision making. The implication is that under normal, high-contrast conditions, in which detection is very fast, the random variability that is characteristic of all reaction times is not caused by sensory noise but is gratuitously introduced by the brain itself; paradoxically, by conferring unpredictability it may aid an organism's survival.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Probability
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Saccades / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Visual Perception / physiology*