The elegant regularity of maps of variables such as ocular dominance, orientation, and spatial frequency in primary visual cortex has prompted many people to suggest that their structure could be explained by an optimization principle. Up to now, the standard way to test this hypothesis has been to generate artificial maps by optimizing a hypothesized objective function and then to compare these artificial maps with real maps using a variety of quantitative criteria. If the artificial maps are similar to the real maps, this provides some evidence that the real cortex may be optimizing a similar function to the one hypothesized. Recently, a more direct method has been proposed for testing whether real maps represent local optima of an objective function (Swindale, Shoham, Grinvald, Bonhoeffer, & Hübener, 2000). In this approach, the value of the hypothesized function is calculated for a real map, and then the real map is perturbed in certain ways and the function recalculated. If each of these perturbations leads to a worsening of the function, it is tempting to conclude that the real map is quite likely to represent a local optimum of that function. In this article, we argue that such perturbation results provide only weak evidence in favor of the optimization hypothesis.

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