Journal of Neurophysiology vol:102 issue:3 pages:1854-67
The ability to detect and identify targets in cluttered scenes is a critical skill for survival and interactions. To solve this challenge the brain has optimized mechanisms for capitalizing on frequently occurring regularities in the environment. Although evolution and development have been suggested to shape the brain's architecture in a manner that resembles these natural statistics, we provide novel evidence that short-term experience in adulthood may modify the brain's functional organization to support integration of signals atypical of shape contours in natural scenes. Although collinearity is a prevalent principle for perceptual integration in natural scenes, we show that observers learn to exploit other image regularities (i.e., orthogonal alignments of segments at an angle to the contour path) that typically signify discontinuities. Combining behavioral and functional MRI measurements, we demonstrate that this flexible learning is mediated by changes in the neural representations of behaviorally relevant image regularities primarily in dorsal visual areas. These changes in neural sensitivity are in line with changes in perceptual sensitivity for the detection of orthogonal contours and are evident only in observers that show significant performance improvement. In contrast, changes in the activation extent in frontoparietal regions are evident independent of performance changes, may support the detection of salient regions, and modulate perceptual integration in occipitotemporal areas in a top-down manner. Thus experience at shorter timescales in adulthood supports the adaptive functional optimization of visual circuits for flexible interpretation of natural scenes.