The uppermost layer (stratum griseum superficiale, SGS) of the superior colliculus (SC) provides an important gateway from the retina to the visual extrastriate and visuomotor systems. The majority of attention has been given to the role of this "visual" SC in saccade generation and target selection and it is generally considered to be less important in visual perception. We have found, however, that in the rat SGS1, the most superficial division of the SGS, the neurons perform very sophisticated analysis of visual information. First, in studying their responses with a variety of flashing stimuli we found that the neurons respond not to brightness changes per se, but to the appearance and/or disappearance of visual shapes in their receptive fields (RFs). Contrary to conventional RFs of neurons at the early stages of visual processing, the RFs in SGS1 cannot be described in terms of fixed spatial distribution of excitatory and inhibitory inputs. Second, SGS1 neurons showed robust orientation tuning to drifting gratings and orientation-specific modulation of the center response from surround. These are features previously seen only in visual cortical neurons and are considered to be involved in "contour" perception and figure-ground segregation. Third, responses of SGS1 neurons showed complex dynamics; typically the response tuning became progressively sharpened with repetitive grating periods. We conclude that SGS1 neurons are involved in considerably more complex analysis of retinal input than was previously thought. SGS1 may participate in early stages of figure-ground segregation and have a role in low-resolution nonconscious vision as encountered after visual decortication.