Behavioral Evidence and Neural Correlates of Perceptual Grouping by Motion in the Barn Owl

J Neurosci. 2018 Jul 25;38(30):6653-6664. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0174-18.2018. Epub 2018 Jul 2.


Perceiving an object as salient from its surround often requires a preceding process of grouping the object and background elements as perceptual wholes. In humans, motion homogeneity provides a strong cue for grouping, yet it is unknown to what extent this occurs in nonprimate species. To explore this question, we studied the effects of visual motion homogeneity in barn owls of both genders, at the behavioral as well as the neural level. Our data show that the coherency of the background motion modulates the perceived saliency of the target object. An object moving in an odd direction relative to other objects attracted more attention when the other objects moved homogeneously compared with when moved in a variety of directions. A possible neural correlate of this effect may arise in the population activity of the intermediate/deep layers of the optic tectum. In these layers, the neural responses to a moving element in the receptive field were suppressed when additional elements moved in the surround. However, when the surrounding elements all moved in one direction (homogeneously moving), they induced less suppression of the response compared with nonhomogeneously moving elements. Moreover, neural responses were more sensitive to the homogeneity of the background motion than to motion-direction contrasts between the receptive field and the surround. The findings suggest similar principles of saliency-by-motion in an avian species as in humans and show a locus in the optic tectum where the underlying neural circuitry may exist.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT A critical task of the visual system is to arrange incoming visual information to a meaningful scene of objects and background. In humans, elements that move homogeneously are grouped perceptually to form a categorical whole object. We discovered a similar principle in the barn owl's visual system, whereby the homogeneity of the motion of elements in the scene allows perceptually distinguishing an object from its surround. The novel findings of these visual effects in an avian species, which lacks neocortical structure, suggest that our basic visual perception shares more universal principles across species than presently thought, and shed light on possible brain mechanisms for perceptual grouping.

Keywords: attention; avian; figure-ground segregation; optic tectum; superior colliculus; visual search.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Strigiformes / physiology*
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology*