Acquisition and influence of expectations about visual speed
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It has been long hypothesized that due to the inherent ambiguities of visual input and the limitations of the visual system, vision is a form of “unconscious inference” whereby the brain relies on assumptions (aka expectations) to interpret the external world. This hypothesis has been recently formalized into Bayesian models of perception (the “Bayesian brain”) that represent these expectations as prior probabilities. In this thesis, I focus on a particular kind of expectation that humans are thought to possess – that objects in the world tend to be still or move slowly – known as the “slow speed prior”. Through a combination of experimental and theoretical work, I investigate how the speed prior is acquired and how it impacts motion perception. The first part of my work consists of an experiment where subjects are exposed to simple "training" stimuli moving more often at high speeds than at low speeds. By subsequently testing the subjects with slow-moving stimuli of high uncertainty (low contrast), I find that their perception gradually changes in a manner consistent with the progressive acquisition of an expectation that favours progressively higher speeds. Thus subjects appear to gradually internalize the speed statistics of the stimulus ensemble over the duration of the experiment. I model these results using an existing Bayesian model of motion perception that incorporates a speed prior with a peak at zero, extending the model so that the mean gradually shifts away from zero. Although the first experiment presents evidence for the plasticity of the speed prior, the experimental paradigm and the constraints of the model limit the accuracy and precision in the reconstruction of observers’ priors. To address these limitations, I perform a different experiment where subjects compare the speed of moving gratings of different contrasts. The new paradigm allows more precise measurements of the contrast-dependent biases in perceived speed. Using a less constrained Bayesian model, I extract the priors of subjects and find considerable interindividual variability. Furthermore, noting that the Bayesian model cannot account for certain subtleties in the data, I combine the model with a non-Bayesian, physiologically motivated model of speed tuning of cortical neurons and show that the combination offers an improved description of the data. Using the paradigm of the second experiment, I then explore the role of visual experience on the form of the speed prior. By recruiting avid video gamers (who are routinely exposed to high speeds) and nongamers of both sexes, I study the differences in the prior among groups and find, surprisingly, that subjects’ speed priors depend more on gender than on gaming experience. In a final series of experiments similar to the first, I also test subjects on variations of the trained stimulus configuration – namely different orientations and motion directions. Subjects’ responses suggest that they are able to apply the changed prior to different orientations and, furthermore, that the changed prior persists for at least a week after the end of the experiment. These results provide further support for the plasticity of the speed prior but also suggest that the learned prior may be used only across similar stimulus configurations, whereas in sufficiently different configurations or contexts a “default” prior may be used instead.