Knowledge is often thought to be something brought from outside to act upon the visual messages received from the eye in a ‘top–down’ fashion, but this is a misleadingly narrow view. First, the visual system is a multilevel heterarchy with connections acting in all directions so it has no ‘top’; and second, knowledge is provided through innately determined structure and by analysis of the redundancy in sensory messages themselves, as well as from outside. This paper gives evidence about mechanisms analysing sensory redundancy in biological vision. Automatic gain controls for luminance and contrast depend upon feedback from the input, and there are strong indications that the autocorrelation function, and other associations between input variables, affect the contrast sensitivity function and our subjective experience of the world. The associative structure of sensory messages can provide much knowledge about the world we live in, and neural mechanisms that discount established associative structure in the input messages by recoding them can improve survival by making new structure more easily detectable. These mechanisms may be responsible for illusions, such as those produced by a concave face–mask, that are classically attributed to top–down influences.