Visual features as carriers of abstract quantitative information

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 8 (151):1793-1820 (2022)
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Four experiments investigated the extent to which abstract quantitative information can be conveyed by basic visual features. This was done by asking observers to estimate and discriminate Pearson correlation in graphical representations where the first data dimension of each element was encoded by its horizontal position, and the second by the value of one of its visual features; perceiving correlation then requires combining the information in the two encodings via a common abstract representation. Four visual features were examined: luminance, color, orientation, and size. All were able to support the perception of correlation. Indeed, despite the strikingly different appearances of the associated stimuli, all gave rise to performance that was much the same: just noticeable difference was a linear function of distance from complete correlation, and estimated correlation a logarithmic function of this distance. Performance differed only in regards to the level of noise in the feature, with these values compatible with estimates of channel capacity encountered in classic experiments on absolute perceptual magnitudes. These results suggest that quantitative information can be conveyed by visual features that are abstracted at relatively low levels of visual processing, with little representation of the original sensory property. It is proposed that this is achieved via an abstract parameter space in which the values in each perceptual dimension are normalized to have the same means and variances, with perceived correlation based on the shape of the joint probability density function of the resultant elements.

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Ronald A. Rensink
University of British Columbia


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