We have compared the spatial summation characteristics of cells in the primary visual cortex with those of cells in the dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) that provide the input to the cortex. We explored the influence of varying the diameter of a patch of grating centred over the receptive field and quantitatively determined the optimal summation diameter and the degree of surround suppression for cells at both levels of the visual system using the same stimulus parameters. The mean optimal summation size for LGN cells (0.90 degrees) was much smaller than that of cortical cells (3.58 degrees). Virtually all LGN cells exhibited strong surround suppression with a mean value of 74%+/-1.61% SEM for the population as a whole. This potent surround suppression in the cells providing the input to the cortex suggests that cortical cells must integrate their much larger summation fields from the low firing rates associated with the suppression plateau of the LGN cell responses. Our data suggest that the strongest input to cortical cells will arise from geniculate cells representing areas of visual space located at the borders of a visual stimulus. We suggest that analysis of response properties by patterns centred over the receptive fields of cells may give a misleading impression of the process of the representation. Analysis of pattern terminations or salient borders over the receptive field may provide much more insight into the processing algorithms involved in stimulus representation.