Identical sensory inputs can be perceived as markedly different when embedded in distinct contexts. Neural responses to simple stimuli are also modulated by context, but the contribution of this modulation to the processing of natural sensory input is unclear. We measured surround suppression, a quintessential contextual influence, in macaque primary visual cortex with natural images. We found that suppression strength varied substantially for different images. This variability was not well explained by existing descriptions of surround suppression, but it was predicted by Bayesian inference about statistical dependencies in images. In this framework, surround suppression was flexible: it was recruited when the image was inferred to contain redundancies and substantially reduced in strength otherwise. Thus, our results reveal a gating of a basic, widespread cortical computation by inference about the statistics of natural input.
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