Visual information in the visual cortex is processed in a hierarchical manner. Recent studies show that higher visual areas, such as V2, V3, and V4, respond more vigorously to images with naturalistic higher-order statistics than to images lacking them. This property is a functional signature of higher areas, as it is much weaker or even absent in the primary visual cortex (V1). However, the mechanism underlying this signature remains elusive. We studied this problem using computational models. In several typical hierarchical visual models including the AlexNet, VggNet, and SHMAX, this signature was found to be prominent in higher layers but much weaker in lower layers. By changing both the model structure and experimental settings, we found that the signature strongly correlated with sparse firing of units in higher layers but not with any other factors, including model structure, training algorithm (supervised or unsupervised), receptive field size, and property of training stimuli. The results suggest an important role of sparse neuronal activity underlying this special feature of higher visual areas.
Keywords: V1; V2; V4; deep learning; higher-order statistics; visual processing.