Self-motion trajectories can facilitate orientation-based figure-ground segregation

Arkadeb Dutta, Tidhar Lev-Ari, Ouriel Barzilay, Rotem Mairon, Alon Wolf, Ohad Ben-Shahar, Yoram Gutfreund

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Segregation of objects from the background is a basic and essential property of the visual system. We studied the neural detection of objects defined by orientation difference from background in barn owls (Tyto alba). We presented wide-field displays of densely packed stripes with a dominant orientation. Visual objects were created by orienting a circular patch differently from the background. In head-fixed conditions, neurons in both tecto- and thalamofugal visual pathways (optic tectum and visual Wulst) were weakly responsive to these objects in their receptive fields. However, notably, in freely viewing conditions, barn owls occasionally perform peculiar side-to-side head motions (peering) when scanning the environment. In the second part of the study we thus recorded the neural response from head-fixed owls while the visual displays replicated the peering conditions; i.e., the displays (objects and backgrounds) were shifted along trajectories that induced a retinal motion identical to sampled peering motions during viewing of a static object. These conditions induced dramatic neural responses to the objects, in the very same neurons that where unresponsive to the objects in static displays. By reverting to circular motions of the display, we show that the pattern of the neural response is mostly shaped by the orientation of the background relative to motion and not the orientation of the object. Thus our findings provide evidence that peering and/or other self-motions can facilitate orientation-based figure-ground segregation through interaction with inhibition from the surround. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Animals frequently move their sensory organs and thereby create motion cues that can enhance object segregation from background. We address a special example of such active sensing, in barn owls. When scanning the environment, barn owls occasionally perform small-amplitude side-to-side head movements called peering. We show that the visual outcome of such peering movements elicit neural detection of objects that are rotated from the dominant orientation of the background scene and which are otherwise mostly undetected. These results suggest a novel role for self-motions in sensing objects that break the regular orientation of elements in the scene.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)912-926
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2020


  • Active vision
  • Barn owls
  • Camouflage breaking
  • Optic tectum
  • Ouchi illusion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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