Objects with bilateral symmetry, such as faces, animal shapes, and many man-made objects, play an important role in everyday vision. Because they occur frequently, it is reasonable to conjecture that the brain may be specialized for symmetric objects. We investigated whether the human visual system processes three-dimensional (3D) symmetric objects more efficiently than asymmetric ones. Human subjects, having learned a symmetric wire object, discriminated which of two distorted copies of the learned object was more similar to the learned one. The distortion was achieved by adding 3D Gaussian positional perturbations at the vertices of the wire object. In the asymmetric condition, the perturbation was independent from one vertex to the next. In the symmetric condition, independent perturbations were added to only half of the object; perturbations on the other half retained the symmetry of the object. We found that subjects’ thresholds were higher in the symmetric condition. However, since the perturbation in the symmetric condition was correlated, a stimulus image provided less information in the symmetric condition. Taking this into consideration, an ideal-observer analysis revealed that subjects were actually more efficient at discriminating symmetric objects. This reversal in interpretation underscores the importance of ideal-observer analysis. A completely opposite, and wrong, conclusion would have been drawn from analyzing only human discrimination thresholds. Given the same amount of information, the visual system is actually better able to discriminate symmetric objects than asymmetric ones.
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