Prior knowledge of illumination for 3D perception in the human brain

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Peggy GerardinPascal Mamassian


In perceiving 3D shape from ambiguous shading patterns, humans use the prior knowledge that the light is located above their head and slightly to the left. Although this observation has fascinated scientists and artists for a long time, the neural basis of this "light from above left" preference for the interpretation of 3D shape remains largely unexplored. Combining behavioral and functional MRI measurements coupled with multivoxel pattern analysis, we show that activations in early visual areas predict best the light source direction irrespective of the perceived shape, but activations in higher occipitotemporal and parietal areas predict better the perceived 3D shape irrespective of the light direction. These findings demonstrate that illumination is processed earlier than the representation of 3D shape in the visual system. In contrast to previous suggestions, we propose that prior knowledge about illumination is processed in a bottom-up manner and influences the interpretation of 3D structure at higher stages of processing.

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