Segregation of images into figures and background is fundamental for visual perception. Cortical neurons respond more strongly to figural image elements than to background elements, but the mechanisms of figure–ground modulation (FGM) are only partially understood. It is unclear whether FGM in early and mid-level visual cortex is caused by an enhanced response to the figure, a suppressed response to the background, or both.
We studied neuronal activity in areas V1 and V4 in monkeys performing a texture segregation task. We compared texture-defined figures with homogeneous textures and found an early enhancement of the figure representation, and a later suppression of the background. Across neurons, the strength of figure enhancement was independent of the strength of background suppression.
We also examined activity in the different V1 layers. Both figure enhancement and ground suppression were strongest in superficial and deep layers and weaker in layer 4. The current–source density profiles suggested that figure enhancement was caused by stronger synaptic inputs in feedback-recipient layers 1, 2, and 5 and ground suppression by weaker inputs in these layers, suggesting an important role for feedback connections from higher level areas. These results provide new insights into the mechanisms for figure–ground organization.