Prior expectations bias sensory representations in visual cortex

J Neurosci. 2013 Oct 9;33(41):16275-84. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0742-13.2013.


Perception is strongly influenced by expectations. Accordingly, perception has sometimes been cast as a process of inference, whereby sensory inputs are combined with prior knowledge. However, despite a wealth of behavioral literature supporting an account of perception as probabilistic inference, the neural mechanisms underlying this process remain largely unknown. One important question is whether top-down expectation biases stimulus representations in early sensory cortex, i.e., whether the integration of prior knowledge and bottom-up inputs is already observable at the earliest levels of sensory processing. Alternatively, early sensory processing may be unaffected by top-down expectations, and integration of prior knowledge and bottom-up input may take place in downstream association areas that are proposed to be involved in perceptual decision-making. Here, we implicitly manipulated human subjects' prior expectations about visual motion stimuli, and probed the effects on both perception and sensory representations in visual cortex. To this end, we measured neural activity noninvasively using functional magnetic resonance imaging, and applied a forward modeling approach to reconstruct the motion direction of the perceived stimuli from the signal in visual cortex. Our results show that top-down expectations bias representations in visual cortex, demonstrating that the integration of prior information and sensory input is reflected at the earliest stages of sensory processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult