How recent history affects perception: the normative approach and its heuristic approximation

Ofri Raviv
Merav Ahissar
Yonatan Loewenstein

There is accumulating evidence that prior knowledge about expectations plays an important role in perception. The Bayesian framework is the standard computational approach to explain how prior knowledge about the distribution of expected stimuli is incorporated with noisy observations in order to improve performance. However, it is unclear what information about the prior distribution is acquired by the perceptual system over short periods of time and how this information is utilized in the process of perceptual decision making. Here we address this question using a simple two-tone discrimination task. We find that the “contraction bias”, in which small magnitudes are overestimated and large magnitudes are underestimated, dominates the pattern of responses of human participants. This contraction bias is consistent with the Bayesian hypothesis in which the true prior information is available to the decision-maker. However, a trial-by-trial analysis of the pattern of responses reveals that the contribution of most recent trials to performance is overweighted compared with the predictions of a standard Bayesian model. Moreover, we study participants’ performance in a-typical distributions of stimuli and demonstrate substantial deviations from the ideal Bayesian detector, suggesting that the brain utilizes a heuristic approximation of the Bayesian inference. We propose a biologically plausible model, in which decision in the two-tone discrimination task is based on a comparison between the second tone and an exponentially-decaying average of the first tone and past tones. We show that this model accounts for both the contraction bias and the deviations from the ideal Bayesian detector hypothesis. These findings demonstrate the power of Bayesian-like heuristics in the brain, as well as their limitations in their failure to fully adapt to novel environments.

October, 2012