Beyond the classical receptive field: The effect of contextual stimuli

Lothar Spillmann, Birgitta Dresp-Langley, Chia huei Tseng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Following the pioneering studies of the receptive field (RF), the RF concept gained further significance for visual perception by the discovery of input effects from beyond the classical RF. These studies demonstrated that neuronal responses could be modulated by stimuli outside their RFs, consistent with the perception of induced brightness, color, orientation, and motion. Lesion scotomata are similarly modulated perceptually from the surround by RFs that have migrated from the interior to the outer edge of the scotoma and in this way provide filling-in of the void. Large RFs are advantageous to this task. In higher visual areas, such as the middle temporal and inferotemporal lobe, RFs increase in size and lose most of their retinotopic organization while encoding increasingly complex features. Whereas lowerlevel RFs mediate perceptual filling-in, contour integration, and figure-ground segregation, RFs at higher levels serve the perception of grouping by common fate, biological motion, and other biologically relevant stimuli, such as faces. Studies in alert monkeys while freely viewing natural scenes showed that classical and nonclassical RFs cooperate in forming representations of the visual world. Today, our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the RF is undergoing a quantum leap. What had started out as a hierarchical feedforward concept for simple stimuli, such as spots, lines, and bars, now refers to mechanisms involving ascending, descending, and lateral signal flow. By extension of the bottom-up paradigm, RFs are nowadays understood as adaptive processors, enabling the predictive coding of complex scenes. Top-down effects guiding attention and tuned to task-relevant information complement the bottom-up analysis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7
JournalJournal of vision
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Association field
  • Attention
  • Contextual neurons
  • Nonclassical receptive fields
  • Predictive coding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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