The perceptual world is organized hierarchically: the forest consists of trees, which in turn have leaves. Visual attention can emphasize the overall picture (global form) or the focal details of a scene (local components). Neuropsychological studies have indicated that the left hemisphere is biased towards local and the right towards global processing. The underlying attentional and perceptual mechanisms are maximally impaired by unilateral lesions to the temporal and parietal cortex. We measured brain activity of normal subjects during two experiments using 'hierarchically' organized figures. In a directed attention task, early visual processing (prestriate) areas were activated: attention to the global aspect of the figures activated the right lingual gyrus whereas locally directed attention activated the left inferior occipital cortex. In a subsequent divided attention task, the number of target switches from local to global (and vice versa) covaried with temporal-parietal activation. The findings provide direct evidence for hemispheric specialization in global and local perception; furthermore, they indicate that temporal-parietal areas exert attentional control over the neural transformations occurring in prestriate cortex.