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J Neurosci. 2012 Oct 24;32(43):14921-6. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2036-12.2012.

A cardinal orientation bias in scene-selective visual cortex.

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  • 1Athinioula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, Massachusetts 02129, USA.


It has long been known that human vision is more sensitive to contours at cardinal (horizontal and vertical) orientations, compared with oblique orientations; this is the "oblique effect." However, the real-world relevance of the oblique effect is not well understood. Experiments here suggest that this effect is linked to scene perception, via a common bias in the image statistics of scenes. This statistical bias for cardinal orientations is found in many "carpentered environments" such as buildings and indoor scenes, and some natural scenes. In Experiment 1, we confirmed the presence of a perceptual oblique effect in a specific set of scene stimuli. Using those scenes, we found that a well known "scene-selective" visual cortical area (the parahippocampal place area; PPA) showed distinctively higher functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) activity to cardinal versus oblique orientations. This fMRI-based oblique effect was not observed in other cortical areas (including scene-selective areas transverse occipital sulcus and retrosplenial cortex), although all three scene-selective areas showed the expected inversion effect to scenes. Experiments 2 and 3 tested for an analogous selectivity for cardinal orientations using computer-generated arrays of simple squares and line segments, respectively. The results confirmed the preference for cardinal orientations in PPA, thus demonstrating that the oblique effect can also be produced in PPA by simple geometrical images, with statistics similar to those in scenes. Thus, PPA shows distinctive fMRI selectivity for cardinal orientations across a broad range of stimuli, which may reflect a perceptual oblique effect.

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