What you see is what you expect: rapid scene understanding benefits from prior experience

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2015 May;77(4):1239-51. doi: 10.3758/s13414-015-0859-8.


Although we are able to rapidly understand novel scene images, little is known about the mechanisms that support this ability. Theories of optimal coding assert that prior visual experience can be used to ease the computational burden of visual processing. A consequence of this idea is that more probable visual inputs should be facilitated relative to more unlikely stimuli. In three experiments, we compared the perceptions of highly improbable real-world scenes (e.g., an underwater press conference) with common images matched for visual and semantic features. Although the two groups of images could not be distinguished by their low-level visual features, we found profound deficits related to the improbable images: Observers wrote poorer descriptions of these images (Exp. 1), had difficulties classifying the images as unusual (Exp. 2), and even had lower sensitivity to detect these images in noise than to detect their more probable counterparts (Exp. 3). Taken together, these results place a limit on our abilities for rapid scene perception and suggest that perception is facilitated by prior visual experience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory*
  • Probability
  • Semantics
  • Visual Perception*
  • Young Adult