Filling-in of visual phantoms in the human brain

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The constructive nature of perception can be demonstrated under viewing conditions that lead to vivid subjective impressions in the absence of direct input. When a low-contrast moving grating is divided by a large gap, observers report seeing a 'visual phantom' of the real grating extending through the blank gap region. Here, we report fMRI evidence showing that visual phantoms lead to enhanced activity in early visual areas that specifically represent the blank gap region. We found that neural filling-in effects occurred automatically in areas V1 and V2, regardless of where the subject attended. Moreover, when phantom-inducing gratings were paired with competing stimuli in a binocular rivalry display, subjects reported spontaneous fluctuations in conscious perception of the phantom accompanied by tightly coupled changes in early visual activity. Our results indicate that phantom visual experiences are closely linked to automatic filling-in of activity at the earliest stages of cortical processing.

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Figure 1: Experimental design and stimuli.
Figure 2: Average fMRI time courses for retinotopic regions corresponding to the blank gap in areas V1 and V2, plotted as a function of grating orientation and attentional task (n = 8).
Figure 3: Magnitude of responses to visual phantoms.
Figure 4: Attentional modulation effects across visual areas.
Figure 5: Event-related activity for reported percepts of phantom (black solid lines) or no phantom (gray dashed lines) during rivalry and stimulus alternation.
Figure 6: Comparison of response amplitudes for rivalry (ordinate) and stimulus alternation (abscissa) for reported percepts of phantom (positive points) or no phantom (negative points).


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We thank Y. Kamitani, Y. Sasaki and A. Seiffert for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript, and the Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior, Princeton University, for MRI support. This work was supported by grant R01 EY14202 from the US National Institutes of Health to F.T.

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Correspondence to Ming Meng.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Movie 1

Demonstration of a moving visual phantom. (MOV 319 kb)

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