The spectral, spatial and contrast sensitivity of human polarization pattern perception

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It is generally believed that humans perceive linear polarized light following its conversion into a luminance signal by diattenuating macular structures. Measures of polarization sensitivity may therefore allow a targeted assessment of macular function. Our aim here was to quantify psychophysical characteristics of human polarization perception using grating and optotype stimuli defined solely by their state of linear polarization. We show: (i) sensitivity to polarization patterns follows the spectral sensitivity of macular pigment; (ii) the change in sensitivity across the central field follows macular pigment density; (iii) polarization patterns are identifiable across a range of contrasts and scales, and can be resolved with an acuity of 15.4 cycles/degree (0.29 logMAR); and (iv) the human eye can discriminate between areas of linear polarization differing in electric field vector orientation by as little as 4.4°. These findings, which support the macular diattenuator model of polarization sensitivity, are unique for vertebrates and approach those of some invertebrates with a well-developed polarization sense. We conclude that this sensory modality extends beyond Haidinger's brushes to the recognition of quantifiable spatial polarization-modulated patterns. Furthermore, the macular origin and sensitivity of human polarization pattern perception makes it potentially suitable for the detection and quantification of macular dysfunction.

Original languageEnglish
Article number16571
Number of pages10
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2017. Open Access: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit

Funding: South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust.


  • macular degeneration
  • Pattern Vision


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