How Sensitive Is the Human Visual System to the Local Statistics of Natural Images?
A key hypothesis in sensory system neuroscience is that sensory representations are adapted to the statistical regularities in sensory signals and thereby incorporate knowledge about the outside world. Supporting this hypothesis, several probabilistic models of local natural image regularities have been proposed that reproduce neural response properties. Although many such physiological links have been made, these models have not been linked directly to visual sensitivity. Previous psychophysical studies of sensitivity to natural image regularities focus on global perception of large images, but much less is known about sensitivity to local natural image regularities. We present a new paradigm for controlled psychophysical studies of local natural image regularities and compare how well such models capture perceptually relevant image content. To produce stimuli with precise statistics, we start with a set of patches cut from natural images and alter their content to generate a matched set whose joint statistics are equally likely under a probabilistic natural image model. The task is forced choice to discriminate natural patches from model patches. The results show that human observers can learn to discriminate the higher-order regularities in natural images from those of model samples after very few exposures and that no current model is perfect for patches as small as 5 by 5 pixels or larger. Discrimination performance was accurately predicted by model likelihood, an information theoretic measure of model efficacy, indicating that the visual system possesses a surprisingly detailed knowledge of natural image higher-order correlations, much more so than current image models. We also perform three cue identification experiments to interpret how model features correspond to perceptually relevant image features. Several aspects of primate visual physiology have been identified as adaptations to local regularities of natural images. However, much less work has measured visual sensitivity to local natural image regularities. Most previous work focuses on global perception of large images and shows that observers are more sensitive to visual information when image properties resemble those of natural images. In this work we measure human sensitivity to local natural image regularities using stimuli generated by patch-based probabilistic natural image models that have been related to primate visual physiology. We find that human observers can learn to discriminate the statistical regularities of natural image patches from those represented by current natural image models after very few exposures and that discriminability depends on the degree of regularities captured by the model. The quick learning we observed suggests that the human visual system is biased for processing natural images, even at very fine spatial scales, and that it has a surprisingly large knowledge of the regularities in natural images, at least in comparison to the state-of-the-art statistical models of natural images.