Decision Making Journal Club

Visual Noise from Natural Scene Statistics Reveals Human Scene Category Representations

Our perceptions are guided both by the bottom-up information entering our eyes, as well as our top-down expectations of what we will see. Although bottom-up visual processing has been extensively studied, comparatively little is known about top-down signals. Here, we describe REVEAL (Representations Envisioned Via Evolutionary ALgorithm), a method for visualizing an observer's internal representation of a complex, real-world scene, allowing us to, for the first time, visualize the top-down information in an observer's mind. REVEAL rests on two innovations for solving this high dimensional problem: visual noise that samples from natural image statistics, and a computer algorithm that collaborates with human observers to efficiently obtain a solution. In this work, we visualize observers' internal representations of a visual scene category (street) using an experiment in which the observer views the naturalistic visual noise and collaborates with the algorithm to externalize his internal representation. As no scene information was presented, observers had to use their internal knowledge of the target, matching it with the visual features in the noise. We matched reconstructed images with images of real-world street scenes to enhance visualization. Critically, we show that the visualized mental images can be used to predict rapid scene detection performance, as each observer had faster and more accurate responses to detecting real-world images that were the most similar to his reconstructed street templates. These results show that it is possible to visualize previously unobservable mental representations of real world stimuli. More broadly, REVEAL provides a general method for objectively examining the content of previously private, subjective mental experiences.