Global properties of natural scenes shape local properties of human edge detectors
Visual cortex analyzes images by first extracting relevant details (e.g. edges) via a large array of specialized detectors. The resulting edge map is then relayed to a processing pipeline, the final goal of which is to attribute meaning to the scene. As this process unfolds, does the global interpretation of the image affect how local feature detectors operate? We characterized the local properties of human edge detectors while we manipulated the extent to which the statistical properties of the surrounding image conformed to those encountered in natural vision. Although some aspects of local processing were unaffected by contextual manipulations, we observed significant alterations in the operating characteristics of the detector which were solely attributable to a higher-level semantic interpretation of the scene, unrelated to lower-level aspects of image statistics. Our results suggest that it may be inaccurate to regard early feature detectors as operating outside the domain of higher-level vision; although there is validity in this approach, a full understanding of their properties requires the inclusion of knowledge-based effects specific to the statistical regularities found in the natural environment.