The large-scale organization of shape processing in the ventral and dorsal pathways

  • Freud E
  • Culham J
  • Plaut D
  • et al.
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Although shape perception is considered a function of the ventral visual pathway, evidence suggests that the dorsal pathway also derives shape-based representations. In two psychophysics and neuroimaging experiments, we characterized the response properties, topographical organization and perceptual relevance of these representations. In both pathways, shape sensitivity increased from early visual cortex to extrastriate cortex but then decreased in anterior regions. Moreover, the lateral aspect of the ventral pathway and posterior regions of the dorsal pathway were sensitive to the availability of fundamental shape properties, even for unrecognizable images. This apparent representational similarity between the posterior-dorsal and lateral-ventral regions was corroborated by a multivariate analysis. Finally, as with ventral pathway, the activation profile of posterior dorsal regions was correlated with recognition performance, suggesting a possible contribution to perception. These findings challenge a strict functional dichotomy between the pathways and suggest a more distributed model of shape processing.We rely on our sense of vision to perceive the world around us and the objects within it. We also use vision to guide our interactions with objects. One of the most influential theories in cognitive neuroscience is the idea that separate pathways within the brain support these two processes. The ventral pathway is in charge of vision-for-perception. It analyses the features that help us recognize objects, such as their color, size or shape, enabling us to identify the hammer in a toolbox, for example. The dorsal pathway is responsible for vision-for-action. It processes features that help us interact with objects, such as their movement and location, enabling us to use the hammer to strike a nail.However, recent studies have suggested that the ventral and dorsal pathways may not be as independent as originally thought. Freud et al. now test this idea by examining if the dorsal vision-for-action pathway can also perceive and process objects.Healthy volunteers viewed pictures of objects while lying inside a brain scanner. Some of the objects in the pictures were intact, whereas others had been distorted. If a brain region shows greater activation when viewing intact objects than distorted ones, it implies that that region is sensitive to the normal shapes of objects. Freud et al. found that both the ventral and dorsal pathways were sensitive to shape, with some areas in the two pathways showing highly similar responses. Furthermore, the shape sensitivity of certain regions within the dorsal pathway correlated with the volunteers’ ability to recognize the objects. This suggests that regions distributed across both pathways – and not just the ventral one – may contribute to object recognition.The two-pathways hypothesis has governed our understanding of vision and of other sensory systems including hearing for several decades. By challenging the binary distinction between the two pathways, the results of Freud et al. suggest that models of sensory processing may require updating. This improved understanding may ultimately improve diagnosis and treatment of perceptual disorders such as agnosia, in which patients struggle to recognize objects.




Freud, E., Culham, J. C., Plaut, D. C., & Behrmann, M. (2017). The large-scale organization of shape processing in the ventral and dorsal pathways. ELife, 6.

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