Studies have shown that human observers can adapt their detection strategies on the basis of the statistical properties of noisy backgrounds. One common property of such studies is that the backgrounds studied are (or are assumed to be) statistically stationary. Less is known about how humans detect signals in the more complex setting of nonstationary backgrounds. We investigated detection performance in the presence of a globally nonstationary oriented noise background. We controlled for noise-correlation effects by considering a stationary background with a power spectrum matched to the average spectrum of the nonstationary process. Performance of a nonadaptive linear filter that was unable to make use of differences in local statistics yielded constant performance in both the stationary and the nonstationary backgrounds. In contrast, performance of an ideal observer that uses local noise statistics yielded substantially higher (140%) detectability with the nonstationary backgrounds than the stationary ones. Human observers showed significantly higher (33%) detection performance in the nonstationary backgrounds, suggesting that they can adapt their detection mechanisms to the local orientation properties.
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