Contrast Constancy

from Michael’s Visual Phenomena & Optical Illusions


What to see

Above you see two checkerboards; the left has a high contrast, the right a low contrast. In the center of each there is a smaller 4×4 checkerboard patch within a green box. Compare their contrasts – initially, on “auto run”, their contrasts are going up and down in counterbalance.

What to do

Use the middle slider (or use the cursor left/right keys) to adjust the contrast of the two small checkerboards until they seem similar. When you are satisfied, uncheck Draw surround (or press the space bar). Now: without the surrounding checkerboards, the contrasts of the small patches no longer seem identical.


A case of contrast adaptation localised in space: Contrast on the retina is translated by the “contrast transfer function” (CTF)¹ to neural activity. This CTF can vary across the retina and thus across the visual field. Because the left checkerboard has a high contrast, in this region the CTF is shifted rightwards into the optimal range (this is usually a good thing). On the right side the inverse happens, the CTF shifts leftwards. So, although the center patches can be physically identical, they seem different because they are viewed with different CTFs. (Also known as “contrast contrast”.)

¹The “contrast transfer function” translates local contrast on the retina to neural activity in the brain. It has a sigmoidal shape, first flat near zero, then rising, then saturating. The rising part of the CTF can shift horizontally through adaptation, or here through average neighboring contrast. See also next page.


Chubb C, Sperling G, Solomon JA (1989) Texture interactions determine perceived contrast. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 86:9631–9635 [PDF]

Solomon JA, Sperling G, Chubb C (1993) The lateral inhibition of perceived contrast is indifferent to on-center/off-center segregation, but specific to orientation. Vision Res 33:2671–2683

Dakin (2005) Weak suppression of visual context in chronic schizophrenia. Current Biol 15(20):R822 [PDF]