Abstract

The temporal sequence of neural processes supporting figure–ground perception was investigated by recording ERPs associated with subjects' perceptions of the face–vase figure. In Experiment 1, subjects continuously reported whether they perceived the face or the vase as the foreground figure by pressing one of two buttons. Each button press triggered a probe flash to the face region, the vase region, or the borders between the two. The N170/vertex positive potential (VPP) component of the ERP elicited by probes to the face region was larger when subjects perceived the faces as figure. Preceding the N170/VPP, two additional components were identified. First, when the borders were probed, ERPs differed in amplitude as early as 110 msec after probe onset depending on subjects' figure–ground perceptions. Second, when the face or vase regions were probed, ERPs were more positive (at ∼150–200 msec) when that region was perceived as figure versus background. These components likely reflect an early “border ownership” stage, and a subsequent “figure–ground segregation” stage of processing. To explore the influence of attention on these stages of processing, two additional experiments were conducted. In Experiment 2, subjects selectively attended to the face or vase region, and the same early ERP components were again produced. In Experiment 3, subjects performed an identical selective attention task, but on a display lacking distinctive figure–ground borders, and neither of the early components were produced. Results from these experiments suggest sequential stages of processing underlying figure–ground perception, each which are subject to modifications by selective attention.

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