Abstract

Our visual percepts are not fully determined by the physical stimulus input. That is why we perceive crisp bounding contours even in the absence of luminance-defined borders in visual illusions such as the Kanizsa figure. It is important to understand which neural processes are involved in creating these artificial visual experiences because this might tell us how we perceive coherent objects in natural scenes, which are characterized by mutual overlap. We have already shown using functional magnetic resonance imaging [Maertens, M., & Pollmann, S. fMRI reveals a common neural substrate of illusory and real contours in v1 after perceptual learning. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17, 1553–1564, 2005] that neurons in the primary visual cortex (V1) respond to these stimuli. Here we provide support for the hypothesis that V1 is obligatory for the discrimination of the curvature of illusory contours. We presented illusory contours across the portion of the visual field corresponding to the physiological “blind spot.” Four observers were extensively trained and asked to discriminate fine curvature differences in these illusory contours. A distinct performance drop (increased errors and response latencies) was observed when illusory contours traversed the blind spot compared to when they were presented in the “normal” contralateral visual field at the same eccentricity. We attribute this specific performance deficit to the failure to build up a representation of the illusory contour in the absence of a cortical representation of the “blind spot” within V1. The current results substantiate the assumption that neural activity in area V1 is closely related to our phenomenal experience of illusory contours in particular, and to the construction of our subjective percepts in general.

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