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Speed of processing in the human visual system

Abstract

How long does it take for the human visual system to process a complex natural image? Subjectively, recognition of familiar objects and scenes appears to be virtually instantaneous, but measuring this processing time experimentally has proved difficult. Behavioural measures such as reaction times can be used1, but these include not only visual processing but also the time required for response execution. However, event-related potentials (ERPs) can sometimes reveal signs of neural processing well before the motor output2. Here we use a go/no-go categorization task in which subjects have to decide whether a previously unseen photograph, flashed on for just 20 ms, contains an animal. ERP analysis revealed a frontal negativity specific to no-go trials that develops roughly 150 ms after stimulus onset. We conclude that the visual processing needed to perform this highly demanding task can be achieved in under 150 ms.

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Thorpe, S., Fize, D. & Marlot, C. Speed of processing in the human visual system. Nature 381, 520–522 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1038/381520a0

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