Gravity-dependent change in the ‘light-from-above’ prior

Michael Barnett-Cowan, Marc O. Ernst, Heinrich H. Bülthoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


In environments where orientation is ambiguous, the visual system uses prior knowledge about lighting coming from above to recognize objects, determine which way is up, and reorient the body. Here we investigated the extent with which assumed light from above preferences are affected by body orientation and the orientation of the retina relative to gravity. We tested the ability to extract shape-from-shading with seven human male observers positioned in multiple orientations relative to gravity using a modified KUKA anthropomorphic robot arm. Observers made convex-concave judgments of a central monocularly viewed stimulus with orientations of a shading gradient consistent with being lit from one of 24 simulated illumination directions. By positioning observers in different roll-tilt orientations relative to gravity and when supine, we were able to monitor change in the light-from-above prior (the orientation at which a shaded disk appears maximally convex). The results confirm previous findings that the light-from-above prior changes with body orientation relative to gravity. Interestingly, the results varied also with retinal orientation as well as an additional component that was approximately twice the frequency of retinal orientation. We use a modelling approach to show that the data are well predicted by summing retinal orientation with cross-multiplied utricle and saccule signals of the vestibular system, yielding gravity-dependent biases in the ability to extract shape-from-shading. We conclude that priors such as light coming from above appear to be constantly updated by neural processes that monitor self-orientation to achieve optimal object recognition over moderate deviations from upright posture at the cost of poor recognition when extremely tilted relative to gravity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number15131
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Dec 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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