Visual Perception and the Brain

The course will consider how what we see is generated by the visual system, and what visual perception indicates about how the brain works. The evidence will be drawn from neuroscience, psychology, science history and philosophy. Although the discussions will be informed by visual system anatomy and physiology, the focus is on perception.

About The Course

The purpose of the course is to consider how what we see is generated by the visual system.

In the 1960s and for the following few decades, it seemed all but certain that the rapidly growing body of information about the electrophysiological and anatomical properties of neurons in the primary visual pathway of experimental animals would reveal how the brain uses retinal stimuli to generate perceptions and appropriate visually guided behaviors. But despite the passage of more than fifty years, this expectation has not been met. In retrospect, the missing piece is understanding how stimuli that cannot specify the properties of physical sources can nevertheless give rise to perceptions and behaviors that are routinely successful.

Most concepts of vision propose, explicitly or implicitly, that successful visual behavior depends on recovering the sources of stimulus features either directly or by a process of statistical inference. However, given the inability of the visual system to access the physical properties of the world, these conceptual frameworks cannot account for the behavioral success of biological vision. The alternative is that the visual system automatically links simple, recurrent stimulus patterns with reproductive success, without ever recovering real world properties.

This strategy provides a different way of studying the relationship between the objective world and subjective experience, and offers a way of understanding the operating principles of visual circuitry without invoking feature detection, image representation in the brain, and/or probabilistic inference.

Thus the objectives of the course are:
- To introduce you to some fascinating perceptual phenomenology
- To make you think about how this phenomenology can be explained
- To make you consider what possible explanations imply about brain function

Frequently Asked Questions

Is this course free?


How is this course different from other Neuroscience (particularly, sensory modality) courses? 

This course will encourage you to consider vision in a new way. In particular, we will discuss how what we see is not a representation of the physical world, and what surmounting this obstacle implies about the visual brain. 

Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

Yes. Students who receive 70% or better in the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

What resources will I need for this class?

No course materials are required; students simply need be open to new ideas about our perception of the physical world and how the visual brain operates.

Recommended Background

Some background in neuroscience is desirable, but not necessary. We will consider basic visual system anatomy and physiology as needed.