Figure-ground organization in the visual cortex: Does meaning matter?

Hee Kyoung Ko, Rüdiger von der Heydt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Figure-ground organization in the visual cortex is generally assumed to be based partly on general rules and partly on specific influences of object recognition in higher centers as found in the temporal lobe. To see if shape familiarity influences figure-ground organization, we tested border ownership-selective neurons in monkey V1/V2 with silhouettes of human and monkey face profiles and “nonsense” silhouettes constructed by mirror-reversing the front part of the profile. We found no superiority of face silhouettes compared with nonsense shapes in eliciting border-ownership signals overall. However, in some neurons, border-ownership signals differed strongly between the two categories consistently across many different profile shapes. Surprisingly, this category selectivity appeared as early as 70 ms after stimulus onset, which is earlier than the typical latency of shape-selective responses but compatible with the earliest face-selective responses in the inferior temporal lobe. Although our results provide no evidence for a delayed top-down influence from object recognition centers, they indicate sophisticated shape categorization mechanisms that are much faster than generally assumed. NEW & NOTEWORTHY A long-standing question is whether low-level sensory representations in cortex are influenced by cognitive “top-down” signals. We studied figure-ground organization in the visual cortex by comparing border-ownership signals for face profiles and matched nonsense shapes. We found no sign of “face superiority” in the population border-ownership signal. However, some neurons consistently differentiated between the face and nonsense categories early on, indicating the presence of shape classification mechanisms that are much faster than previously assumed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-176
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018


  • Border ownership
  • Cognitive feedback
  • Face selectivity
  • Macaque monkey
  • Neuronal responses

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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