Although orientation coding in the human visual system has been researched with simple stimuli, little is known about how orientation information is represented while viewing complex images. We show that, similar to findings with simple Gabor textures, the visual system involuntarily discounts orientation noise in a wide range of natural images, and that this discounting produces a dipper function in the sensitivity to orientation noise, with best sensitivity at intermediate levels of pedestal noise.
However, the level of this discounting depends on the complexity and familiarity of the input image, resulting in an image-class-specific threshold that changes the shape and position of the dipper function according to image class. These findings do not fit a filter-based feed-forward view of orientation coding, but can be explained by a process that utilizes an experience-based perceptual prior of the expected local orientations and their noise. Thus, the visual system encodes orientation in a dynamic context by continuously combining sensory information with expectations derived from earlier experiences.