Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Apparent surface curvature affects lightness perception


THE human visual system has the remarkable capacity to perceive accurately the lightness, or relative reflectance, of surfaces, even though much of the variation in image luminance may be caused by other scene attributes, such as shape and illumination. Most physiological1,2, and computational models3–6 of lightness perception invoke early sensory mechanisms that act independently of, or before, the estimation of other scene attributes. In contrast to the modularity of lightness perception assumed in these models are experiments that show that supposedly 'higher-order' percepts of planar surface attributes, such as orientation, depth and transparency7–10, can influence perceived lightness. Here we show that perceived surface curvature can also affect perceived lightness. The results of the earlier experiments indicate that perceiving luminance edges as changes in surface attributes other than reflectance can influence lightness. These results suggest that the interpretation of smooth variations in luminance can also affect lightness percepts.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Cornsweet, T. Visual Perception (Academic, New York, 1970).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Shapley, R. Vision Res. 26, 45–61 (1986).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Land, E. H. & McCann, J. J. J. opt. Soc. Am. 61, 1–11 (1971).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Horn, B. K. P. Comput. Graph. Image Proc. 3, 277–299 (1974).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Blake, A. Comput. Vis. Graph. Image Proc. 32, 314–327 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Grossberg, S. & Todorovic, D. in Neural Networks and Natural Intelligence (ed. Grossberg, S.) 127–194 (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Mach, E. Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations (transl. Williams, C. M.) (Open Court, Chicago, 1897; original work published 1890).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  8. Gilchrist, A. Science 195, 185–187 (1977).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Adelson, A. Suppl. Invest. Ophthalmol. vis. Sci. 31, 265 (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Gilchrist, A., Delman, S. & Jacobsen, A. Percept. Psychophys. 33, 425–436 (1983).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Craik, K. J. W. The Nature of Psychology: A Selection of Papers, Essays and Writings (University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  12. O'Brien, V. J. opt. Soc. Am. 48, 112–119 (1958).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Barrow, H. G. & Tenenbaum, J. M. Artif. Intell. 17, 75–116 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Ramachandran, V. S. Sci. Am. 256, 76–83 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Arend, L. E., Buehler, J. N. & Lockhead, G. R. Percept. Psychophys. 9, 367–370 (1971).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Bergström, S. S. Scand. J. Psych. 18, 180–186 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Knill, D., Kersten, D. Apparent surface curvature affects lightness perception. Nature 351, 228–230 (1991).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing