Studying the visual brain in its natural rhythm

Neuroimage. 2020 Aug 1;216:116790. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116790. Epub 2020 Apr 8.


How the brain fluidly orchestrates visual behavior is a central question in cognitive neuroscience. Researchers studying neural responses in humans and nonhuman primates have mapped out visual response profiles and cognitive modulation in a large number of brain areas, most often using pared down stimuli and highly controlled behavioral paradigms. The historical emphasis on reductionism has placed most studies at one pole of an inherent trade-off between strictly controlled experimental variables and open designs that monitor the brain during its natural modes of operation. This bias toward simplified experiments has strongly shaped the field of visual neuroscience, with little guarantee that the principles and concepts established within that framework will apply more generally. In recent years, a growing number of studies have begun to relax strict experimental control with the aim of understanding how the brain responds under more naturalistic conditions. In this article, we survey research that has explicitly embraced the complexity and rhythm of natural vision. We focus on those studies most pertinent to understanding high-level visual specializations in brains of humans and nonhuman primates. We conclude that representationalist concepts borne from conventional visual experiments fall short in their ability to capture the real-life visual operations undertaken by the brain. More naturalistic approaches, though fraught with experimental and analytic challenges, provide fertile ground for neuroscientists seeking new inroads to investigate how the brain supports core aspects of our daily visual experience.

Keywords: Bodies; Face patches; Faces; Free viewing; IT; Inferior temporal cortex; Naturalisitic; Neural representation; Perception; Primate; Vision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology
  • Humans
  • Primates
  • Social Perception*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*