We use vision both to perceive and to interact with the objects around us. One of the most influential theories in cognitive neuroscience is the idea that separate pathways within the brain support these two processes. The ventral pathway is in charge of vision-for-perception. It analyses the features that help us recognize objects, such as their color, size or shape, enabling us to identify the hammer in a toolbox, for example. The dorsal pathway is responsible for vision-for-action. It processes features that help us interact with objects, such as their movement and location, enabling us to use the hammer to strike a nail.

However, recent studies have suggested that the ventral and dorsal pathways may not be as independent as originally thought. In a recent paper, published in e-Life, “The large-scale organization of the ventral and dorsal visual pathways” Erez Freud, Jody Culham, David Plaut and Marlene Behrmann tested this idea by examining if the dorsal vision- for-action pathway can also perceive and process objects.

Healthy volunteers viewed pictures of objects while lying inside a brain scanner. Some of the objects in the pictures were intact, whereas others had been distorted. If a brain region shows greater activation when viewing intact objects than distorted ones, it implies that that region is sensitive to the normal shapes of objects. Freud et al. found that both the ventral and dorsal pathways were sensitive to shape, with some areas in the two pathways showing highly similar responses. Furthermore, the shape sensitivity of certain regions within the dorsal pathway correlated with the volunteers’ ability to recognize the objects. This suggests that regions distributed across both pathways – and not just the ventral one – may contribute to object recognition.

Shape sensitivity is projected on an inflated brain from a superior view (upper panel) and from a posterior-inferior view (lower panel). Warm colors signify voxels that are shape sensitive, with activation increasing as a function of object coherence. Conversely, cold colors reflect low shape sensitivity (negative slopes) or greater sensitivity for scrambled than intact images. The activation profile of four representative clusters (10 voxels each) is plotted and the color of the bars reflects the slope value of each cluster (left panel). The right panel is a 3D reconstruction of the shape sensitivity of all visual voxels along the two pathways.

The two-pathways hypothesis has governed our understanding of vision and of other sensory systems including hearing for several decades. By challenging the binary distinction between the
two pathways, the results of Freud et al. suggest that models of sensory processing may require updating. This improved understanding may ultimately improve diagnosis and treatment of perceptual disorders such as agnosia, in which patients struggle to recognize objects.