Two representations of a high-dimensional perceptual space

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A perceptual space is a mental workspace of points in a sensory domain that supports similarity and difference judgments and enables further processing such as classification and naming. Perceptual spaces are present across sensory modalities; examples include colors, faces, auditory textures, and odors. Color is perhaps the best-studied perceptual space, but it is atypical in two respects. First, the dimensions of color space are directly linked to the three cone absorption spectra, but the dimensions of generic perceptual spaces are not as readily traceable to single-neuron properties. Second, generic perceptual spaces have more than three dimensions. This is important because representing each distinguishable point in a high-dimensional space by a separate neuron or population is unwieldy; combinatorial strategies may be needed to overcome this hurdle.

To study the representation of a complex perceptual space, we focused on a well-characterized 10-dimensional domain of visual textures. Within this domain, we determine perceptual distances in a threshold task (segmentation) and a suprathreshold task (border salience comparison). In N = 4 human observers, we find both quantitative and qualitative differences between these sets of measurements. Quantitatively, observers’ segmentation thresholds were inconsistent with their uncertainty determined from border salience comparisons. Qualitatively, segmentation thresholds suggested that distances are determined by a coordinate representation with Euclidean geometry. Border salience comparisons, in contrast, indicated a global curvature of the space, and that distances are determined by activity patterns across broadly tuned elements. Thus, our results indicate two representations of this perceptual space, and suggest that they use differing combinatorial strategies.

Significance Statement:

To move from sensory signals to decisions and actions, the brain carries out a sequence of transformations. An important stage in this process is the construction of a “perceptual space” – an internal workspace of sensory information that captures similarities and differences, and enables further processing, such as classification and naming. Perceptual spaces for color, faces, visual and haptic textures and shapes, sounds, and odors (among others) are known to exist. How such spaces are represented is at present unknown. Here, using visual textures as a model, we investigate this. Psychophysical measurements suggest roles for two combinatorial strategies: one based on projections onto coordinate-like axes, and one based on patterns of activity across broadly tuned elements scattered throughout the space.

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