Abstract

The sensitivity of the visual system depends on ambient illumination: Sensitivity is reduced in the presence of a bright, uniform background. We asked how sensitivity is adjusted when the background is spatially detailed and therefore contains both luminance peaks and troughs in the neighborhood of a foreground object. A test flash was superimposed on a static sinusoidal grating. As the grating’s spatial frequency increased, sensitivity for flash detection declined, regardless of whether the flash was superimposed on a peak or a trough of the grating. We studied the mechanisms underlying this loss of sensitivity by delivering the test stimulus through one eye and the background through the other. The conclusion is that three mechanisms are involved. Luminance adaptation and a masking process adjust sensitivity at low- and mid-range spatial frequencies, respectively. The third mechanism, a contrast gain control, is localized (it occurs at spatial frequencies approaching the limit for resolution) and fast (complete in half a second), and it results from early processing in the visual pathway (it is absent during dichoptic viewing). This local adjustment of sensitivity may help to protect the clarity of even the smallest details in the visual scene.

© 1999 Optical Society of America

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