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Role of learning in three-dimensional form perception


ONE of the most remarkable characteristics of the human visual system is its ability to perceive specific three-dimensional forms in single two-dimensional contour images. This has often been attributed to a few general purpose and possibly innately specified shape biases1–6, such as those favouring symmetry and other structural regularities (Fig. 1). An alternative approach proposed by the early empiricists7–10 and since tested11 suggests that this ability may also be acquired from visual experience, with the three-dimensional percept being the manifestation of a learned association between specific two-dimensional projections and the correlated three-dimensional structures. These studies of shape learning have been considered inconclusive, however, because their results can potentially be accounted for as cognitive decisions that might have little to do with shape perception per se. Here we present an experimental system that enables objective verification of the role of learning in shape perception by rendering the learning to be perceptually manifest. We show that the human visual system can learn associations between arbitrarily paired two-dimensional pictures and (projectionally consistent) three-dimensional structures. These results implicate high-level recognition processes in the task of shape perception.

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Sinha, P., Poggio, T. Role of learning in three-dimensional form perception. Nature 384, 460–463 (1996).

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