Dissecting the roles of supervised and unsupervised learning in perceptual discrimination judgments

Yonatan Loewenstein*, Ofri Raviv, Merav Ahissar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Our ability to compare sensory stimuli is a fundamental cognitive function, which is known to be affected by two biases: choice bias, which reflects a preference for a given response, and contraction bias, which reflects a tendency to perceive stimuli as similar to previous ones. To test whether both reflect supervised processes, we designed feedback protocols aimed to modify them and tested them in human participants. Choice bias was readily modifiable. However, contraction bias was not. To compare these results to those predicted from an optimal supervised process, we studied a noise-matched optimal linear discriminator (Perceptron). In this model, both biases were substantially modified, indicating that the "resilience" of contraction bias to feedback does not maximize performance. These results suggest that perceptual discrimination is a hierarchical, two-stage process. In the first, stimulus statistics are learned and integrated with representations in an unsupervised process that is impenetrable to external feedback. In the second, a binary judgment, learned in a supervised way, is applied to the combined percept. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The seemingly effortless process of inferring physical reality from the sensory input is highly influenced by previous knowledge, leading to perceptual biases. Two common ones are contraction bias (the tendency to perceive stimuli as similar to previous ones) and choice bias (the tendency to prefer a specific response). Combining human psychophysical experiments with computational modeling we show that they reflect two different learning processes. Contraction bias reflects unsupervised learning of stimuli statistics, whereas choice bias results from supervised or reinforcement learning. This dissociation reveals a hierarchical, two-stage process. The first, where stimuli statistics are learned and integrated with representations, is unsupervised. The second, where a binary judgment is applied to the combined percept, is learned in a supervised way.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)757-765
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - 27 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2021 Loewenstein et al.


  • Contraction bias
  • Frequency discrimination
  • Perception
  • Supervised learning
  • Unsupervised learning


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