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Image segmentation and lightness perception


The perception of surface albedo (lightness) is one of the most basic aspects of visual awareness. It is well known that the apparent lightness of a target depends on the context in which it is embedded1,2,3,4,5,6, but there is extensive debate about the computations and representations underlying perceived lightness. One view asserts that the visual system explicitly separates surface reflectance from the prevailing illumination and atmospheric conditions in which it is embedded7,8,9,10, generating layered image representations. Some recent theory has challenged this view and asserted that the human visual system derives surface lightness without explicitly segmenting images into multiple layers11,12. Here we present new lightness illusions—the largest reported to date—that unequivocally demonstrate the effect that layered image representations can have in lightness perception. We show that the computations that underlie the decomposition of luminance into multiple layers under conditions of transparency can induce dramatic lightness illusions, causing identical texture patches to appear either black or white. These results indicate that mechanisms involved in decomposing images into layered representations can play a decisive role in the perception of surface lightness.

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Figure 1: Static versions of the lightness illusions studied in our experiment (see also Supplementary Video 1).
Figure 2: Lightness matching data.
Figure 3: Transparency control experiment.


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We thank N. Witthoft for suggesting the chessboard variant of the illusion and C.U. Jo for inspiration and support.

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Correspondence to Barton L. Anderson.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Video 1

A moving version of the lightness illusion depicted in Fig. 1a. The corresponding textured disks on the dark and light surrounds are physically identical, but appear either as a light object visible through dark haze or a dark object visible through light haze. (MOV 3243 kb)

Supplementary Video 2

Solid grey disks are placed on the identical surrounds from Fig. 1a and Supplementary Video 1. Simple contrast enhancement processes from viewing a uniform disk on either a light or dark background produce a much smaller illusion than that seen in Supplementary Video 1. (MOV 3150 kb)

Supplementary Video 3

The same targets as those in Fig. 1a and Supplementary Video 1 are placed on identical surrounds that have been rotated 90 degrees. This rotation destroys both the geometric and luminance conditions needed to evoke a percept of transparency, and also destroys the lightness illusion. (MOV 3407 kb)

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Anderson, B., Winawer, J. Image segmentation and lightness perception. Nature 434, 79–83 (2005).

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