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Zooming in on the big picture: Current issues in global versus local processing

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Dating as far back as Aristotle’s Metaphysics in 360BC, a central question in the study of perception has been how local parts are integrated into global wholes. This question is fundamental to the study of conscious experience in a wide range of domains, spanning issues in philosophy, Gestalt psychology’s ...

Dating as far back as Aristotle’s Metaphysics in 360BC, a central question in the study of perception has been how local parts are integrated into global wholes. This question is fundamental to the study of conscious experience in a wide range of domains, spanning issues in philosophy, Gestalt psychology’s assertions about the experience of “wholes,” and more recent computational models and neuroscientific studies of how global image features arise from local image analysis. Martin (1979) was the first to report a functional hemispheric difference between global and local perception, by demonstrating that presenting a hierarchical display in one visual field versus the other changed perceptual biases in reporting elements at each level, with a right hemisphere bias towards global perception and a left hemisphere bias towards local perception. The field of cognitive neuroscience was founded on the notion that cognitive theories can inform neural models, but this was one of the first instances in which a neuroscientific finding informed cognitive theory. The fact that this hemispheric asymmetry exists demonstrated that distinct cognitive and neural mechanisms underlie global and local perception. An important question has since been how the global and local levels are initially defined to give rise to these functional hemispheric asymmetries.

The prevailing view of the visual system is that it is organized as a hierarchical feedforward system, in which the function of neurons in early visual areas is to extract low-level image properties in restricted spatial locations and output this information to higher-level visual areas for more complex processing. More recent studies, however, have demonstrated that the response of neurons in low-level areas can be influenced by contextual information and by feedback from higher-level areas, thereby demonstrating that processing along the visual hierarchy is dynamic. Moreover, studies of multisensory integration have shown that processing in one modality (e.g. vision) is influenced by processing in other modalities (e.g. audition), such that dynamic processing is not limited to the visual system but a property of the brain at large.

Global and local representations are also dynamic, in that the level at which an object is perceived can change depending on the focus of attention. How, then, do global and local representations and perceptions emerge in the visual hierarchy, and where/when does the hemispheric asymmetry arise? How do they emerge in other modalities, and are there common mechanisms that underlie these representations across modalities? Since Martin’s initial finding, numerous studies have corroborated the hemispheric asymmetry in global versus local perception, and a number of theories have been proposed to elucidate the underlying mechanisms. The advent of sophisticated neuroscience methods and computational models have brought us closer to answering these questions, but they remain largely unanswered, and many new questions have arisen. In this research topic, we hope to survey the current issues in global versus local perception research, including visual and other sensory domains. We welcome manuscripts reporting original behavioral and/or physiological research in humans or non-humans, as well as hypothesis/theory and review articles.


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