Vision can be considered as a process of probabilistic inference. In a Bayesian framework, perceptual estimates from sensory information are combined with prior knowledge, with a stronger influence of the prior when the sensory evidence is less certain. Here, we explored the behavioral and neural consequences of manipulating stimulus certainty in the context of orientation processing. First, we asked participants to judge whether a stimulus was oriented closer to vertical or the clockwise primary oblique (45°) for two stimulus types (spatially filtered noise textures and sinusoidal gratings) and three manipulations of certainty (orientation bandwidth, contrast, and duration). We found that participants consistently had a bias toward reporting orientation as closer to 45° during conditions of high certainty and that this bias was reduced when sensory evidence was less certain. Second, we measured event-related fMRI BOLD responses in human primary visual cortex (V1) and manipulated certainty via stimulus contrast (100% vs 3%). We then trained a multivariate classifier on the pattern of responses in V1 to cardinal and primary oblique orientations. We found that the classifier showed a bias toward classifying orientation as oblique at high contrast but categorized a wider range of orientations as cardinal for low-contrast stimuli. Orientation classification based on data from V1 thus paralleled the perceptual biases revealed through the behavioral experiments. This pattern of bias cannot be explained simply by a prior for cardinal orientations.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Our perception of the world around us is biased through prior expectations rather than necessarily reflecting the true state of our environment. Here, we investigate biases in the visual processing of spatial orientation to understand how prior expectations and current sensory information interact to generate a percept. By degrading visual input in various ways, we are able to quantify the extent to which prior experience affects both perceptual judgments and neural responses in the human visual system. We observe systematic biases in the perception of orientation that correlate with the pattern of activity in the primary visual cortex of the human brain. These results indicate that prior expectations influence neural processing right from the earliest stage of the cortical hierarchy.
Keywords: fMRI; primary visual cortex; psychophysics; sensory prior; vision.
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