Modeling second-order boundary perception: A machine learning approach

PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Mar 18;15(3):e1006829. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006829. eCollection 2019 Mar.


Visual pattern detection and discrimination are essential first steps for scene analysis. Numerous human psychophysical studies have modeled visual pattern detection and discrimination by estimating linear templates for classifying noisy stimuli defined by spatial variations in pixel intensities. However, such methods are poorly suited to understanding sensory processing mechanisms for complex visual stimuli such as second-order boundaries defined by spatial differences in contrast or texture. We introduce a novel machine learning framework for modeling human perception of second-order visual stimuli, using image-computable hierarchical neural network models fit directly to psychophysical trial data. This framework is applied to modeling visual processing of boundaries defined by differences in the contrast of a carrier texture pattern, in two different psychophysical tasks: (1) boundary orientation identification, and (2) fine orientation discrimination. Cross-validation analysis is employed to optimize model hyper-parameters, and demonstrate that these models are able to accurately predict human performance on novel stimulus sets not used for fitting model parameters. We find that, like the ideal observer, human observers take a region-based approach to the orientation identification task, while taking an edge-based approach to the fine orientation discrimination task. How observers integrate contrast modulation across orientation channels is investigated by fitting psychophysical data with two models representing competing hypotheses, revealing a preference for a model which combines multiple orientations at the earliest possible stage. Our results suggest that this machine learning approach has much potential to advance the study of second-order visual processing, and we outline future steps towards generalizing the method to modeling visual segmentation of natural texture boundaries. This study demonstrates how machine learning methodology can be fruitfully applied to psychophysical studies of second-order visual processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Contrast Sensitivity
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning*
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychophysics
  • Visual Perception*

Grant support

Supported by Canadian NSERC Grants OPG0001978 and RGPIN-2017-05292 to C.L.B. and a FGCU Professional Development Grant to C.D. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.