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Nature. 1994 Aug 25;370(6491):644-6.

Perceptual sensitivity maps within globally defined visual shapes.

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Laboratory of Vision Research, Rutgers University, Piscataway, New Jersey 08854.


An unsolved problem of biology is the processing of global shape in natural vision. The known processes of early vision are spatially restricted (or local) operations, and little is known about their interactions in organizing the visual image into functionally coherent (or global) objects. Here we introduce a human psychophysical method which allows us to measure the effect of perceptual organization on the activity pattern of local visual detectors. We map differential contrast sensitivity for a target across regions enclosed by a boundary. We show that local contrast sensitivity is enhanced within the boundary even for large distances between the boundary and the target. Furthermore, the locations of maximal sensitivity enhancement in the sensitivity maps are determined by global shape properties. Our data support a class of models which describe shapes by the means of a medial axis transformation, implying that the visual system extracts 'skeletons' as an intermediate-level representation of objects. The skeletal representation offers a structurally simplified shape description which can be used for higher-level operations and for coding into memory.

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