Effects of contrast and size on orientation discrimination

Isabelle Mareschal, Robert M. Shapley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Motivated by the recent physiological finding that a neuron's receptive field can increase in size by a factor of 2-4-fold at low contrast [Nat. Neurosci. 2 (1999) 733, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 96 (1999) 12073], we sought to examine whether a psychophysical task might reflect the contrast dependent changes in the size/structure of a receptive field. We postulate that since spatial summation is not contrast invariant, a task that relies on the spatial structure of a receptive field, such as orientation discrimination, should also be affected by changes in contrast. Previously, orientation discrimination thresholds have been reported to be roughly independent of the contrast of a stimulus for most of the visible range of contrasts [i.e. J. Neurophysiol. 57 (1987) 773, J. Opt. Soc. Am. 6 (1989) 713, Vis. Res. 30 (1990) 449, Vis. Res. 39 (1999) 1631]. Here, we found large improvements in orientation discrimination with contrast that were dependent on stimulus area. Furthermore, the apparent constancy of orientation discrimination for large area stimuli is possibly a result of a floor effect on the threshold. Therefore we conclude that there is not strong evidence for contrast invariant orientation discrimination. We interpret these results in the context of recent neurophysiological results about the expansion of cortical cells' receptive fields at low contrast.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-67
Number of pages11
JournalVision research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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