Recounting the impact of Hubel and Wiesel

J Physiol. 2009 Jun 15;587(Pt 12):2817-23. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2009.170209.


David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel provided a quantum step in our understanding of the visual system. In this commemoration of the 50th year of their initial publication, I would like to examine two aspects of the impact of their work. First, from the viewpoint of those interested in the relation of brain to behaviour, I recount why their initial experiments produced such an immediate impact. Hubel and Wiesel's work appeared against a background of substantial behavioural knowledge about visual perception, a growing desire to know the underlying brain mechanisms for this perception, and an abysmal lack of physiological information about the neurons in visual cortex that might underlie these mechanisms. Their initial results showed both the transformations that occur from one level of processing to the next and how a sequence of these transformations might lead to at least the elements of pattern perception. Their experiments immediately provided a structure for conceptualizing how cortical neurons could be organized to produce perception. A second impact of Hubel and Wiesel's work has been the multiple paths of research they blazed. I comment here on just one of these paths, the analysis of visual cortex in the monkey, particularly in the awake monkey. This direction has led to an explosion in the number of investigations of cortical areas beyond striate cortex and has addressed more complex behavioural questions, but it has evolved from the approach to neuronal processing pioneered by Hubel and Wiesel.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cats
  • History, 20th Century
  • Neurophysiology / history*
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*

Personal name as subject

  • David Hubel
  • Torsten Wiesel