PLoS Biol. 2023 Dec 8;21(12):e3002410. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002410. Online ahead of print.
Perception is known to cycle through periods of enhanced and reduced sensitivity to external information. Here, we asked whether such slow fluctuations arise as a noise-related epiphenomenon of limited processing capacity or, alternatively, represent a structured mechanism of perceptual inference. Using 2 large-scale datasets, we found that humans and mice alternate between externally and internally oriented modes of sensory analysis. During external mode, perception aligns more closely with the external sensory information, whereas internal mode is characterized by enhanced biases toward perceptual history. Computational modeling indicated that dynamic changes in mode are enabled by 2 interlinked factors: (i) the integration of subsequent inputs over time and (ii) slow antiphase oscillations in the perceptual impact of external sensory information versus internal predictions that are provided by perceptual history. We propose that between-mode fluctuations generate unambiguous error signals that enable optimal inference in volatile environments.