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Persistent states in vision break universality and time invariance

Studies of perception usually emphasize processes that are largely universal across observers and—except for short-term fluctuations—stationary over time. Here we test the universality and stationarity assumptions with two families of ambiguous visual stimuli. Each stimulus can be perceived in two different ways, parameterized by two opposite directions from a continuous circular variable. A large-sample study showed that almost all observers have preferred directions or biases, with directions lying within 90 degrees of the bias direction nearly always perceived and opposite directions almost never perceived. The biases differ dramatically from one observer to the next, and although nearly every bias direction occurs in the population, the population distributions of the biases are nonuniform, featuring asymmetric peaks in the cardinal directions. The biases for the two families of stimuli are independent and have distinct population distributions. Following external perturbations and spontaneous fluctuations, the biases decay over tens of seconds toward their initial values. Persistent changes in the biases are found on time scales of several minutes to 1 hour. On scales of days to months, the biases undergo a variety of dynamical processes such as drifts, jumps, and oscillations. The global statistics of a majority of these long-term time series are well modeled as random walk processes. The measurable fluctuations of these hitherto unknown degrees of freedom show that the assumptions of universality and stationarity in perception may be unwarranted and that models of perception must include both directly observable variables as well as covert, persistent states.



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