The human visual system's assumption that light comes from above is weak

Yaniv Morgenstern, Richard F. Murray, Laurence R. Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Every biological or artificial visual system faces the problem that images are highly ambiguous, in the sense that every image depicts an infinite number of possible 3D arrangements of shapes, surface colors, and light sources. When estimating 3D shape from shading, the human visual system partly resolves this ambiguity by relying on the light-from-above prior, an assumption that light comes from overhead. However, light comes from overhead only on average, and most images contain visual information that contradicts the light-from-above prior, such as shadows indicating oblique lighting. How does the human visual system perceive 3D shape when there are contradictions between what it assumes and what it sees? Here we show that the visual system combines the light-from-above prior with visual lighting cues using an efficient statistical strategy that assigns a weight to the prior and to the cues and finds a maximum-likelihood lighting direction estimate that is a compromise between the two. The prior receives surprisingly little weight and can be overridden by lighting cues that are barely perceptible. Thus, the light-from-above prior plays a much more limited role in shape perception than previously thought, and instead human vision relies heavily on lighting cues to recover 3D shape. These findings also support the notion that the visual system efficiently integrates priors with cues to solve the difficult problem of recovering 3D shape from 2D images.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12551-12553
Number of pages3
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number30
StatePublished - Jul 26 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • 3D shape perception
  • Bayesian modelling
  • Visual psychophysics


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