1. Neuroscience
Download icon

The lawful imprecision of human surface tilt estimation in natural scenes

  1. Seha Kim  Is a corresponding author
  2. Johannes Burge  Is a corresponding author
  1. University of Pennsylvania, United States
Research Article
  • Cited 11
  • Views 1,033
  • Annotations
Cite this article as: eLife 2018;7:e31448 doi: 10.7554/eLife.31448


Estimating local surface orientation (slant and tilt) is fundamental to recovering the three-dimensional structure of the environment. It is unknown how well humans perform this task in natural scenes. Here, with a database of natural stereo-images having groundtruth surface orientation at each pixel, we find dramatic differences in human tilt estimation with natural and artificial stimuli. Estimates are precise and unbiased with artificial stimuli and imprecise and strongly biased with natural stimuli. An image-computable Bayes optimal model grounded in natural scene statistics predicts human bias, precision, and trial-by-trial errors without fitting parameters to the human data. The similarities between human and model performance suggest that the complex human performance patterns with natural stimuli are lawful, and that human visual systems have internalized local image and scene statistics to optimally infer the three-dimensional structure of the environment. These results generalize our understanding of vision from the lab to the real world.

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Seha Kim

    Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-0356-6168
  2. Johannes Burge

    Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


National Institutes of Health (EY011747)

  • Johannes Burge

University of Pennsylvania (Startup Funds)

  • Johannes Burge

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: Informed consent was obtained from participants before the experiment. The research protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Pennsylvania (IRB approval protocol number: 824435) and is in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Jack L Gallant, University of California, Berkeley, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: August 25, 2017
  2. Accepted: January 29, 2018
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: January 31, 2018 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: March 9, 2018 (version 2)


© 2018, Kim & Burge

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


  • 1,033
    Page views
  • 107
  • 11

Article citation count generated by polling the highest count across the following sources: Scopus, PubMed Central, Crossref.

Download links

A two-part list of links to download the article, or parts of the article, in various formats.

Downloads (link to download the article as PDF)

Download citations (links to download the citations from this article in formats compatible with various reference manager tools)

Open citations (links to open the citations from this article in various online reference manager services)

  1. Further reading

Further reading

    1. Neuroscience
    Lorenz Deserno et al.
    Research Article Updated

    Dopamine is implicated in representing model-free (MF) reward prediction errors a as well as influencing model-based (MB) credit assignment and choice. Putative cooperative interactions between MB and MF systems include a guidance of MF credit assignment by MB inference. Here, we used a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subjects design to test an hypothesis that enhancing dopamine levels boosts the guidance of MF credit assignment by MB inference. In line with this, we found that levodopa enhanced guidance of MF credit assignment by MB inference, without impacting MF and MB influences directly. This drug effect correlated negatively with a dopamine-dependent change in purely MB credit assignment, possibly reflecting a trade-off between these two MB components of behavioural control. Our findings of a dopamine boost in MB inference guidance of MF learning highlight a novel DA influence on MB-MF cooperative interactions.

    1. Developmental Biology
    2. Neuroscience
    Qiuling Li et al.
    Research Article Updated

    Although many genes are known to influence sleep, when and how they impact sleep-regulatory circuits remain ill-defined. Here, we show that insomniac (inc), a conserved adaptor for the autism-associated Cul3 ubiquitin ligase, acts in a restricted period of neuronal development to impact sleep in adult Drosophila. The loss of inc causes structural and functional alterations within the mushroom body (MB), a center for sensory integration, associative learning, and sleep regulation. In inc mutants, MB neurons are produced in excess, develop anatomical defects that impede circuit assembly, and are unable to promote sleep when activated in adulthood. Our findings link neurogenesis and postmitotic development of sleep-regulatory neurons to their adult function and suggest that developmental perturbations of circuits that couple sensory inputs and sleep may underlie sleep dysfunction in neurodevelopmental disorders.