A unified framework for perceived magnitude and discriminability of sensory stimuli

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2024 Jun 18;121(25):e2312293121. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2312293121. Epub 2024 Jun 10.


The perception of sensory attributes is often quantified through measurements of sensitivity (the ability to detect small stimulus changes), as well as through direct judgments of appearance or intensity. Despite their ubiquity, the relationship between these two measurements remains controversial and unresolved. Here, we propose a framework in which they arise from different aspects of a common representation. Specifically, we assume that judgments of stimulus intensity (e.g., as measured through rating scales) reflect the mean value of an internal representation, and sensitivity reflects a combination of mean value and noise properties, as quantified by the statistical measure of Fisher information. Unique identification of these internal representation properties can be achieved by combining measurements of sensitivity and judgments of intensity. As a central example, we show that Weber's law of perceptual sensitivity can coexist with Stevens' power-law scaling of intensity ratings (for all exponents), when the noise amplitude increases in proportion to the representational mean. We then extend this result beyond the Weber's law range by incorporating a more general and physiology-inspired form of noise and show that the combination of noise properties and sensitivity measurements accurately predicts intensity ratings across a variety of sensory modalities and attributes. Our framework unifies two primary perceptual measurements-thresholds for sensitivity and rating scales for intensity-and provides a neural interpretation for the underlying representation.

Keywords: Fechner’s law; Fisher information; Stevens’ power law; Weber’s law; stochastic representation.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology
  • Perception* / physiology
  • Sensation / physiology
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology