Figure-ground organization and the emergence of proto-objects in the visual cortex

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A long history of studies of perception has shown that the visual system organizes the incoming information early on, interpreting the 2D image in terms of a 3D world and producing a structure that provides perceptual continuity and enables object-based attention. Recordings from monkey visual cortex show that many neurons, especially in area V2, are selective for border ownership. These neurons are edge selective and have ordinary classical receptive fields (CRF), but in addition their responses are modulated (enhanced or suppressed) depending on the location of a 'figure' relative to the edge in their receptive field. Each neuron has a fixed preference for location on one side or the other. This selectivity is derived from the image context far beyond the CRF. This paper reviews evidence indicating that border ownership selectivity reflects the formation of early object representations ('proto-objects'). The evidence includes experiments showing (1) reversal of border ownership signals with change of perceived object structure, (2) border ownership specific enhancement of responses in object-based selective attention, (3) persistence of border ownership signals in accordance with continuity of object perception, and (4) remapping of border ownership signals across saccades and object movements. Findings 1 and 2 can be explained by hypothetical grouping circuits that sum contour feature signals in search of objectness, and, via recurrent projections, enhance the corresponding low-level feature signals. Findings 3 and 4 might be explained by assuming that the activity of grouping circuits persists and can be remapped. Grouping, persistence, and remapping are fundamental operations of vision. Finding these operations manifest in low-level visual areas challenges traditional views of visual processing. New computational models need to be developed for a comprehensive understanding of the function of the visual cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1695
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberNOV
StatePublished - 2015


  • Attention
  • Contour grouping
  • Neural mechanism
  • Object files
  • Object permanence
  • Perceptual organization
  • Single-cell recording
  • Visual cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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