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Two-streams hypothesis of visual processing

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Ventral-dorsal streams

The dorsal stream (green) and ventral stream (purple) are shown. They originate from a common source in the visual cortex

The two-streams hypothesis is a widely accepted and influential model of the neural processing of vision.[1] The hypothesis, given its most popular characterisation in a paper by David Milner and Melvyn A. Goodale in 1992, argues that humans possess two distinct visual systems.[2] As visual information exits the occipital lobe, it follows two main pathways, or "streams". The ventral stream (also known as the "what pathway") travels to the temporal lobe and is involved with object identification and recognition, in order to plan behaviour. The dorsal stream (or, "how pathway") terminates in the parietal lobe and is involved with processing the object's spatial location relevant to the viewer, in order to program behaviour.


Several researchers had proposed similar ideas previously. The authors themselves credit the inspiration of work on blindsight by Weiskrantz, and previous neuroscientific vision research. Schneider first proposed the existence of two visual systems for localisation and identification in 1969.[3] Ingle described two independent visual systems in frogs in 1973.[4] Ettlinger reviewed the existing neuropsychological evidence of a distinction in 1990.[5] Moreover Trevarthen had offered an account of two separate mechanisms of vision in monkeys back in 1968.[6]

In 1982 Ungerleider and Mishkin distinguished the dorsal and ventral streams, as processing spatial and visual features respectively, from their lesion studies of monkeys – proposing the original where vs what distinction.[7] Though this framework was superseded by that of Milner & Goodale, it remains influential.[8]

One hugely influential source of information that has informed the model has been experimental work exploring the extant abilities of visual agnosic patient DF. The first, and most influential report, came from Goodale and colleagues in 1991[9] and work is still being published on her two decades later.[10] This has been the focus of some criticism of the model due to the perceived over-reliance on findings from a single case.

Two visual systemsEdit

Goodale and Milner amassed an array of anatomical, neuropsychological, electrophysiological, and behavioural evidence for their model, according to which the ventral ‘perceptual’ stream provides the rich and detailed representation of the visual world required for cognitive operations whereas the dorsal ‘action’ stream transforms incoming visual information into the required coordinates for skilled motor behaviour.[2] The model also posits that visual perception encodes the object properties (e.g. size) relative to the properties of other visible objects; in other words it utilises relative metrics and scene-based frames of reference. Whereas the visual control of action uses absolute metrics determined via egocentric frames of reference, computing the actual properties of objects relative to the observer. Thus, grasping movements directed towards objects embedded in size-contrast illusions have been shown to escape the effects of these pictorial illusions, as different frames of references and metrics are involved in the production of the illusion versus production of the grasping act.[11]

Norman proposed a similar dual-process model of vision, and described eight main differences between the two systems consistent with other two-system models.[12]

Factor Ventral system Dorsal system
Function Recognition/identification Visually guided behaviour
Sensitivity High spatial frequencies - details High temporal frequencies - motion
Memory Long term stored representations Only very short-term storage
Speed Relatively slow Relatively fast
Consciousness Typically high Typically low
Frame of reference Allocentric or object-centered Egocentric or viewer-centered
Visual input Mainly foveal or parafoveal Across retina
Monocular vision Generally reasonably small effects Often large effects e.g. motion parallax

Dorsal streamEdit

The dorsal stream is proposed to be involved in the guidance of actions and recognizing where objects are in space. Also known as the parietal stream, the "where" stream, or the "how" stream, this pathway stretches from the primary visual cortex (V1) in the occipital lobe forward into the parietal lobe. It is interconnected with the parallel ventral stream (the "what" stream) which runs downward from V1 into the temporal lobe.

General featuresEdit

The dorsal stream is involved in spatial awareness and guidance of actions (e.g., reaching). In this it has two distinct functional characteristics—it contains a detailed map of the visual field, and is also good at detecting and analyzing movements.

The dorsal stream commences with purely visual functions in the occipital lobe before gradually transferring to spatial awareness at its termination in the parietal lobe.

The posterior parietal cortex is essential for "the perception and interpretation of spatial relationships, accurate body image, and the learning of tasks involving coordination of the body in space".[13]

It contains individually functioning lobules. The lateral intraparietal sulcus (LIP) contains neurons that produce enhanced activation when attention is moved onto the stimulus or the animal saccades towards a visual stimulus, and the ventral intraparietal sulcus (VIP) where visual and somatosensory information are integrated.

Effects of damage or lesionsEdit

Damage to the posterior parietal cortex causes a number of spatial disorders including:

  • Simultanagnosia: where the patient can only describe single objects without the ability to perceive it as a component of a set of details or objects in a context (as in a scenario, e.g. the forest for the trees).
  • Optic ataxia: where the patient can't use visuospatial information to guide arm movements.
  • Hemispatial neglect: where the patient is unaware of the contralesional half of space (that is, they are unaware of things in their left field of view and focus only on objects in the right field of view; or appear unaware of things in one field of view when they perceive them in the other). For example, a person with this disorder may draw a clock, and then label it from 12, 1, 2, ..., 6, but then stop and consider their drawing complete.
  • Akinetopsia: inability to perceive motion.
  • Apraxia: inability to produce discretionary or volitional movement in the absence of muscular disorders.

Ventral streamEdit

The ventral stream is associated with object recognition and form representation. It has strong connections to the medial temporal lobe (which stores long-term memories), the limbic system (which controls emotions), and the dorsal stream (which deals with object locations and motion).

The ventral stream gets its main input from the parvocellular (as opposed to magnocellular) layer of the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus. These neurons project to V1 sublayers 4Cβ, 4A, 3B and 2/3a[14] successively. From there, the ventral pathway goes through V2 and V4 to areas of the inferior temporal lobe: PIT (posterior inferotemporal), CIT (central inferotemporal), and AIT (anterior inferotemporal). Each visual area contains a full representation of visual space. That is, it contains neurons whose receptive fields together represent the entire visual field. Visual information enters the ventral stream through the primary visual cortex and travels through the rest of the areas in sequence.

Moving along the stream from V1 to AIT, receptive fields increase their size, latency, and the complexity of their tuning.

All the areas in the ventral stream are influenced by extraretinal factors in addition to the nature of the stimulus in their receptive field. These factors include attention, working memory, and stimulus salience. Thus the ventral stream does not merely provide a description of the elements in the visual world—it also plays a crucial role in judging the significance of these elements.


Goodale & Milner's innovation was to shift the perspective from an emphasis on input distinctions, such as object location versus properties, to an emphasis on the functional relevance of vision to behaviour, for perception or for action. Contemporary perspectives however, informed by empirical work over the past two decades, offer a more complex account than a simple separation of function into two-streams.[15] Recent experimental work for instance has challenged these findings, and has suggested that the apparent dissociation between the effects of illusions on perception and action is due to differences in attention, task demands, and other confounds.[16][17] There are other empirical findings, however, that cannot be so easily dismissed which provide strong support for the idea that skilled actions such as grasping are not affected by pictorial illusions.[18][19][20][21]

Moreover, recent neuropsychological research has questioned the validity of the dissociation of the two streams that has provided the cornerstone of evidence for the model. The dissociation between visual agnosia and optic ataxia has been challenged by several researchers as not as strong as originally portrayed; Hesse and colleagues demonstrated dorsal stream impairments in patient DF;[22] Himmelbach and colleagues reassessed DF's abilities and applied more rigorous statistical analysis demonstrating that the dissociation wasn't as strong as first thought.[10]

A 2010 review of the accumulated evidence for the model concluded that whilst the spirit of the model has been vindicated the independence of the two streams has been overemphasised.[23] Goodale & Milner themselves have proposed the analogy of tele-assistance, one of the most efficient schemes devised for the remote control of robots working in hostile environments. In this account, the dorsal stream is viewed as a semi-autonomous function that operates under guidance of executive functions which themselves are informed by ventral stream processing.[24] Thus the emerging perspective within neuropsychology and neurophysiology is that, whilst a two-systems framework was a necessary advance to stimulate study of the highly complex and differentiated functions of the two neural pathways; the reality is more likely to involve considerable interaction between vision-for-action and vision-for-perception. Rob McIntosh and Thomas Schenk summarize this position as follows:

We should view the model not as a formal hypothesis, but as a set of heuristics to guide experiment and theory. The differing informational requirements of visual recognition and action guidance still offer a compelling explanation for the broad relative specializations of dorsal and ventral streams. However, to progress the field, we may need to abandon the idea that these streams work largely independently of one other, and to address the dynamic details of how the many visual brain areas arrange themselves from task to task into novel functional networks.[23]:62


  1. Eyesenck MW, Keane MT. (2010). Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Goodale MA, Milner AD (1992). Separate visual pathways for perception and action. Trends Neurosci. 15 (1): 20–5.
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  4. (Sep 1973). Two visual systems in the frog.. Science 181 (4104): 1053–5.
  5. Ettlinger G. (1990). "Object vision" and "spatial vision": the neuropsychological evidence for the distinction.. Cortex 26 (3): 319–41.
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  9. (Jan 1991). A neurological dissociation between perceiving objects and grasping them.. Nature 349 (6305): 154–6.
  10. 10.0 10.1 (Jan 2012). 20 years later: a second look on DF's motor behaviour.. Neuropsychologia 50 (1): 139–44.
  11. Aglioti S, DeSouza JF, Goodale MA. (1995). Size-contrast illusions deceive the eye but not the hand.. Curr. Biol. 5 (6): 679–85.
  12. Norman J. (2002). Two visual systems and two theories of perception: An attempt to reconcile the constructivist and ecological approaches. Behav Brain Sci 25: 73–144.
  13. Mark F Bear, Barry Connors, Michael Paradiso, (2007). Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, Hagerstown, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  14. (1998). Feedforward, horizontal, and feedback processing in the visual cortex. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 8 (4): 529–535.
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  16. Franz VH, Gegenfurtner KR, Bülthoff HH, Fahle M. (2000). Grasping visual illusions: no evidence for a dissociation between perception and action.. Psychol Sci. 11 (1): 20–5.
  17. Franz VH, Scharnowski F, Gegenfurtner (2005). Illusion effects on grasping are temporally constant not dynamic.. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 31 (6): 1359–78.
  18. Ganel T, Goodale MA. (2003). Visual control of action but not perception requires analytical processing of object shape.. Nature 426 (6967): 664–7.
  19. Ganel T, Tanzer M, Goodale MA. (2008). A double dissociation between action and perception in the context of visual illusions: opposite effects of real and illusory size.. Psych. Sci. 19 (3): 221–5.
  20. Cardoso-Leite, Pedro and Gorea, Andrei (2010). On the Perceptual/Motor Dissociation: A Review of Concepts, Theory, Experimental Paradigms and Data Interpretations. Seeing and Perceiving 23 (2): 89–151.
  21. Goodale MA. (2011). Transforming vision into action.. Vision Res. 51 (14): 1567–87.
  22. (Jan 2012). Visuomotor performance based on peripheral vision is impaired in the visual form agnostic patient DF.. Neuropsychologia 50 (1): 90–7.
  23. 23.0 23.1 (May 2009). Two visual streams for perception and action: current trends.. Neuropsychologia 47 (6): 1391–6.
  24. Milner, A.D.; Goodale, M.A. (2006), The Visual Brain in Action, ISBN 978-0-19-852472-4,, retrieved on 2012-12-06 
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