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Visualization of higher-level receptive fields in a hierarchical model of the visual system

Early visual receptive fields have been measured extensively and are fairly well mapped. Receptive fields in higher areas, on the other hand, are very difficult to characterize, because it is not clear what they are tuned to and which stimuli to use to study them. Early visual receptive fields have been reproduced by computational models. Slow feature analysis (SFA), for instance, is an algorithm that finds functions that extract most slowly varying features from a multi-dimensional input sequence [1]. Applied to quasi-natural image sequences, i.e. image sequences derived from natural images by translation, rotation and zoom, SFA yields many properties of complex cells in V1 [2].

A hierarchical network of SFA units learns invariant object representations much like in IT [3]. These successes suggest that units of intermediate layers in the network might share properties with cells in V2 or V4. The goal of this project is therefore to develop techniques to visualize and characterize such units to understand how cells in V2/V4 might work. This is nontrivial because the units are highly nonlinear. The algorithm is gradient-based and applied in a cascade within the network. We start with a natural image patch as an input, which then gets optimized by gradient ascent to maximize the output of one particular unit. Figure 1 shows such optimal stimuli for units in the first (a, b) and the second layer (c, d). The latter can be associated with cells in V2/V4. We plan to extend this to higher layers and larger receptive fields and will also develop techniques to visualize the invariances of the units, i.e. those variations to the input that have little effect on the unit's output. The long-term goal is to provide a good stimulus set for characterizing cells in V2/V4.

Figure 1
figure 1

Optimal stimuli of units in the first layer (a, b) and the second layer (c, d) of a hierarchical SFA network optimized for slowness and trained with quasi-natural image sequences.


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Correspondence to Christian Hinze.

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Open Access This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Hinze, C., Wilbert, N. & Wiskott, L. Visualization of higher-level receptive fields in a hierarchical model of the visual system. BMC Neurosci 10 (Suppl 1), P158 (2009).

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