Spatially pooled contrast responses predict neural and perceptual similarity of naturalistic image categories

PLoS Comput Biol. 2012;8(10):e1002726. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002726. Epub 2012 Oct 18.


The visual world is complex and continuously changing. Yet, our brain transforms patterns of light falling on our retina into a coherent percept within a few hundred milliseconds. Possibly, low-level neural responses already carry substantial information to facilitate rapid characterization of the visual input. Here, we computationally estimated low-level contrast responses to computer-generated naturalistic images, and tested whether spatial pooling of these responses could predict image similarity at the neural and behavioral level. Using EEG, we show that statistics derived from pooled responses explain a large amount of variance between single-image evoked potentials (ERPs) in individual subjects. Dissimilarity analysis on multi-electrode ERPs demonstrated that large differences between images in pooled response statistics are predictive of more dissimilar patterns of evoked activity, whereas images with little difference in statistics give rise to highly similar evoked activity patterns. In a separate behavioral experiment, images with large differences in statistics were judged as different categories, whereas images with little differences were confused. These findings suggest that statistics derived from low-level contrast responses can be extracted in early visual processing and can be relevant for rapid judgment of visual similarity. We compared our results with two other, well- known contrast statistics: Fourier power spectra and higher-order properties of contrast distributions (skewness and kurtosis). Interestingly, whereas these statistics allow for accurate image categorization, they do not predict ERP response patterns or behavioral categorization confusions. These converging computational, neural and behavioral results suggest that statistics of pooled contrast responses contain information that corresponds with perceived visual similarity in a rapid, low-level categorization task.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology*
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Regression Analysis
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Visual Perception / physiology*

Grant support

This work is part of the Research Priority Program ‘Brain & Cognition’ at the University of Amsterdam and was supported by an Advanced Investigator grant from the European Research Council ( The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.