Spatial-frequency channels, shape bias, and adversarial robustness

Ajay Subramanian, Elena Sizikova, Najib J. Majaj, Denis G. Pelli

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


What spatial frequency information do humans and neural networks use to recognize objects? In neuroscience, critical band masking is an established tool that can reveal the frequency-selective filters used for object recognition. Critical band masking measures the sensitivity of recognition performance to noise added at each spatial frequency. Existing critical band masking studies show that humans recognize periodic patterns (gratings) and letters by means of a spatial-frequency filter (or “channel”) that has a frequency bandwidth of one octave (doubling of frequency). Here, we introduce critical band masking as a task for network-human comparison and test 14 humans and 76 neural networks on 16-way ImageNet categorization in the presence of narrowband noise. We find that humans recognize objects in natural images using the same one-octave-wide channel that they use for letters and gratings, making it a canonical feature of human object recognition. Unlike humans, the neural network channel is very broad, 2-4 times wider than the human channel. This means that the network channel extends to frequencies higher and lower than those that humans are sensitive to. Thus, noise at those frequencies will impair network performance and spare human performance. Adversarial and augmented-image training are commonly used to increase network robustness and shape bias. Does this training align network and human object recognition channels? Three network channel properties (bandwidth, center frequency, peak noise sensitivity) correlate strongly with shape bias (51% variance explained) and robustness of adversarially-trained networks (66% variance explained). Adversarial training increases robustness but expands the channel bandwidth even further beyond the human bandwidth. Thus, critical band masking reveals that the network channel is more than twice as wide as the human channel, and that adversarial training only makes it worse. Networks with narrower channels might be more robust.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAdvances in Neural Information Processing Systems
StatePublished - 2023
Event37th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, NeurIPS 2023 - New Orleans, United States
Duration: Dec 10 2023Dec 16 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Information Systems
  • Signal Processing


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