Heading perception depends on time-varying evolution of optic flow

Charlie S. Burlingham, David J. Heeger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is considerable support for the hypothesis that perception of heading in the presence of rotation is mediated by instantaneous optic flow. This hypothesis, however, has never been tested. We introduce a method, termed “nonvarying phase motion,” for generating a stimulus that conveys a single instantaneous optic flow field, even though the stimulus is presented for an extended period of time. In this experiment, observers viewed stimulus videos and performed a forced-choice heading discrimination task. For nonvarying phase motion, observers made large errors in heading judgments. This suggests that instantaneous optic flow is insufficient for heading perception in the presence of rotation. These errors were mostly eliminated when the velocity of phase motion was varied over time to convey the evolving sequence of optic flow fields corresponding to a particular heading. This demonstrates that heading perception in the presence of rotation relies on the time-varying evolution of optic flow. We hypothesize that the visual system accurately computes heading, despite rotation, based on optic acceleration, the temporal derivative of optic flow.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33161-33169
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number52
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Acceleration
  • Ego-motion
  • Heading
  • Motion perception
  • Optic flow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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