Mechanisms for extracting a signal from noise as revealed through the specificity and generality of task training

Dorita Chang, Zoe Kourtzi, Andrew Welchman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
188 Downloads (Pure)


Visual judgments critically depend on (1) the detection of meaningful items from cluttered backgrounds and (2) the discrimination of an item from highly similar alternatives. Learning and experience are known to facilitate these processes, but the specificity with which these processes operate is poorly understood. Here we use psychophysical measures of human participants to test learning in two types of commonly used tasks that target segmentation (signal-in-noise, or “coarse” tasks) versus the discrimination of highly similar items (feature difference, or “fine” tasks). First, we consider the processing of binocular disparity signals, examining performance on signal-in-noise and feature difference tasks after a period of training on one of these tasks. Second, we consider the generality of learning between different visual features, testing performance on both task types for displays defined by disparity, motion, or orientation. We show that training on a feature difference task also improves performance on signal-in-noise tasks, but only for the same visual feature. By contrast, training on a signal-in-noise task has limited benefits for fine judgments of the same feature but supports learning that generalizes to signal-in-noise tasks for other features. These findings indicate that commonly used signal-in-noise tasks require at least three distinct components: feature representations, signal-specific selection, and a generalized process that enhances segmentation. As such, there is clear potential to harness areas of commonality (both within and between cues) to improve impaired perceptual functions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10962-10971
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number27
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2013


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