Perceptual organization of local elements into global shapes in the human visual cortex.
The question of how local image features on the retina are integrated into perceived global shapes is central to our understanding of human visual perception. Psychophysical investigations have suggested that the emergence of a coherent visual percept, or a "good-Gestalt", is mediated by the perceptual organization of local features based on their similarity. However, the neural mechanisms that mediate unified shape perception in the human brain remain largely unknown. Using human fMRI, we demonstrate that not only higher occipitotemporal but also early retinotopic areas are involved in the perceptual organization and detection of global shapes. Specifically, these areas showed stronger fMRI responses to global contours consisting of collinear elements than to patterns of randomly oriented local elements. More importantly, decreased detection performance and fMRI activations were observed when misalignment of the contour elements disturbed the perceptual coherence of the contours. However, grouping of the misaligned contour elements by disparity resulted in increased performance and fMRI activations, suggesting that similar neural mechanisms may underlie grouping of local elements to global shapes by different visual features (orientation or disparity). Thus, these findings provide novel evidence for the role of both early feature integration processes and higher stages of visual analysis in coherent visual perception.