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Brain Cogn. 1989 Sep;11(1):37-49.

Seeing either the forest or the trees: dissociation in visuospatial processing.

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  • 1Laboratory for Language and Cognitive Studies, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla.


Traditionally, visuospatial processing has resisted fractionation into functional substrates. Recently, however, it has been shown that the brain honors the distinction between global and local processing of hierarchical visual stimuli: unilateral left hemisphere brain-damaged subjects were impaired in their ability to draw the local forms of a hierarchical design, whereas right hemisphere-damaged patients demonstrated the opposite pattern (Delis, Robertson, & Efron, 1986; Delis, Kiefner, & Fridlund, 1988). The present study reports a similar pronounced dissociation in hierarchical visual processing but in quite different populations and in the absence of focal structural brain damage. Mentally retarded subjects with Williams Syndrome are considerably more impaired in global relative to local analysis, whereas subjects with Down Syndrome display the opposite pattern. These results, in concert with other neuropsychological data, are provocative because they suggest that certain cognitive deficits may cluster even in the absence of frank cerebral damage, just as they cluster following insult to one hemisphere. These findings should provide clues to the interrelationship of components of visuospatial processing and other cognitive functions.

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