Contrast-modulation flicker: Dynamics and spatial resolution of the light adaptation process

Sheng He, Donald I.A. Macleod

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41 Scopus citations


We report a perceptual phenomenon that originates from a nonlinear operation during the visual process, and we use these observations to study the functional organization of the responsible nonlinearity: the regulation of visual sensitivity to light. When the contrast of a high frequency grating was modulated while its spatial and temporal average luminance was kept constant, observers saw brightness changes or desaturation in the field. If the contrast was modulated periodically between zero and a peak value, observers saw vivid flicker (contrast-modulation flicker), and this flicker could be seen even when the grating was too fine to be visually resolved as a pattern. This uniform-field flicker can be nulled by a modulation of space-average luminance at the contrast-modulation frequency, with appropriate phase and modulation depth. Contrast-modulation flicker is still measurable with gratings at 100 cycies/deg. The dynamics of contrast-modulation flicker suggest that it results from an early sensitivity-controlling mechanism, acting very rapidly (within about 20 msec). Its dependence on stimulus spatial frequency implies a strictly local luminance nonlinearity, one that either resides within individual photoreceptors or operates on signals from individual receptors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)985-1000
Number of pages16
JournalVision Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 1998

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements-This work was supported by NIH grant EY-01711. We thank Walter Makous for comments on a draft.


  • Cone aperture
  • Dynamics
  • Light adaptation
  • Nonlinearity
  • Sensitivity control


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