Humans are surprisingly good at learning the statistical characteristics of their visual environment. Recent studies have revealed that not only can the visual system learn repeated features of visual search distractors, but also their actual probability distributions. Search times were determined by the frequency of distractor features over consecutive search trials. The search displays applied in these studies involved many exemplars of distractors on each trial and while there is clear evidence that feature distributions can be learned from large distractor sets, it is less clear if distributions are well learned for single targets presented on each trial. Here, we investigated potential learning of probability distributions of single targets during visual search. Over blocks of trials, observers searched for an oddly colored target that was drawn from either a Gaussian or a uniform distribution. Search times for the different target colors were clearly influenced by the probability of that feature within trial blocks. The same search targets, coming from the extremes of the two distributions were found significantly slower during the blocks where the targets were drawn from a Gaussian distribution than from a uniform distribution indicating that observers were sensitive to the target probability determined by the distribution shape. In Experiment 2, we replicated the effect using binned distributions and revealed the limitations of encoding complex target distributions. Our results demonstrate detailed internal representations of target feature distributions and that the visual system integrates probability distributions of target colors over surprisingly long trial sequences.
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© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.