Effects of mean luminance changes on human contrast perception: Contrast dependence, time-course and spatial specificity

M. Kilpeläinen, L. Nurminen, Kristian Donner

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6 Citations (Scopus)
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When we are viewing natural scenes, every saccade abruptly changes both the mean luminance and the contrast structure falling on any given retinal location. Thus it would be useful if the two were independently encoded by the visual system, even when they change simultaneously. Recordings from single neurons in the cat visual system have suggested that contrast information may be quite independently represented in neural responses to simultaneous changes in contrast and luminance. Here we test to what extent this is true in human perception.

Methodology/Principal Findings

Small contrast stimuli were presented together with a 7-fold upward or downward step of mean luminance (between 185 and 1295 Td, corresponding to 14 and 98 cd/m2), either simultaneously or with various delays (50–800 ms). The perceived contrast of the target under the different conditions was measured with an adaptive staircase method. Over the contrast range 0.1–0.45, mainly subtractive attenuation was found. Perceived contrast decreased by 0.052±0.021 (N = 3) when target onset was simultaneous with the luminance increase. The attenuation subsided within 400 ms, and even faster after luminance decreases, where the effect was also smaller. The main results were robust against differences in target types and the size of the field over which luminance changed.


Perceived contrast is attenuated mainly by a subtractive term when coincident with a luminance change. The effect is of ecologically relevant magnitude and duration; in other words, strict contrast constancy must often fail during normal human visual behaviour. Still, the relative robustness of the contrast signal is remarkable in view of the limited dynamic response range of retinal cones. We propose a conceptual model for how early retinal signalling may allow this.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere17200
Pages (from-to)1-9
JournalPloS one
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2011
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • background luminance
  • brightness
  • cone vision
  • dynamics
  • eye-movements
  • light-adaptation
  • natural images
  • primary visual-cortex
  • responses
  • retinal ganglion-cells


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