Habituation of the orienting response has long served as a model system for studying fundamental psychological phenomena such as learning, attention, decisions, and surprise. In this article, we review an emerging hypothesis that the evolutionary role of the superior colliculus (SC) in mammals or its homolog in birds, the optic tectum (OT), is to select the most salient target and send this information to the appropriate brain regions to control the body and brain orienting responses. Recent studies have begun to reveal mechanisms of how saliency is computed in the OT/SC, demonstrating a striking similarity between mammals and birds. The saliency of a target can be determined by how different it is from the surrounding objects, by how different it is from its history (that is habituation) and by how relevant it is for the task at hand. Here, we will first review evidence, mostly from primates and barn owls, that all three types of saliency computations are linked in the OT/SC. We will then focus more on neural adaptation in the OT and its possible link to temporal saliency and habituation.
Keywords: barn owl; habituation; optic tectum; orienting response; saliency map; spatial attention; superior colliculus.