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Cats and Vision: is vision acquired or innate?

In Computer Vision, Neural Science on June 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm

by Gooly (Li Yang Ku)

cat experiment

Cats contributed a lot to the development of internet, but they also play an important role in the field of understanding vision. Around the 60’s scientist started a series of researches on understanding  how brains process visual inputs from eye. Cats, which have a relative sharp vision, were their major subjects.

One of the series of researches that lead to a Nobel Prize was done by Hubel and Wiesel. In 1958 they accidentally discovered neurons in Cats that respond to edges with different orientation; they named these neurons “simple cells“. These neurons was later discovered to be in orientation columns and has profound impact on many computer vision algorithms such as the Gabor filter.

The following video explains how the experiment was made. They first implanted a sensor in a certain area in the cat’s visual cortex. The cat’s head is then fixed to face the projector screen. Different patterns are shown to the cat while the electrode sensor records the response. (The cat is anesthetized during the whole experiment.)

A further experiment was done by Hubel and Wiesel to understood whether the ability to see is innate or acquired. The experiment is done by suturing one of the eyes of a newborn kitten and reopen it after a certain period. Surprisingly kittens with one eye deprived of vision for the first 3 month remain blind on that eye for their whole life.

cat experiment

Another cat experiment done by Blakemore and Cooper gave an even clearer result. Two special cylinders are made, one with only vertical stripes inside and the other with only horizontal stripes. Newborn kittens are placed in one of the cylinders the first few month. Kittens that only perceive vertical lines for the first few month of birth could only see vertical lines not horizontal lines for the rest of their life. The following video explains more in detail.

These experiments show that vision from the most basic line detection to complex scene recognition are all learned and largely depend on the environment one experienced.


Hubel, David H., and Torsten N. Wiesel. “Receptive fields of single neurones in the cat’s striate cortex.” The Journal of physiology 148.3 (1959): 574-591.

Hubel, David H., and Torsten N. Wiesel. “The period of susceptibility to the physiological effects of unilateral eye closure in kittens.” The Journal of physiology 206.2 (1970): 419.

Blakemore, Colin, and Grahame F. Cooper. “Development of the brain depends on the visual environment.” (1970): 477-478.
  1. […] illusions is also crucial in Computer Vision because they are just side effects produced by the underlying algorithm that helps us see. A great vision algorithm should probably have the same visual illusion as humans […]

  2. […] our brain handles visual input is a myth. When Hubel and Wiesel discovered the Gabor filter like neuron in cat’s V1 area, several feed forward model theories […]

  3. […] in the 50′s, Hubel and Wiesel’s work on discovering Gabor filter like neurons in the cat brain really inspired a lot of people. […]

  4. […] Cooper and Blakemoore raised kittens in boxes so that they could only see one orientation of line. The poor kittens then became blind to any other orientation of line because their visual system was simply not developed to process them. The poor things bumped into things once released from their boxes because their brains were unable to process the information around them properly, they were blind to anything not at an angle their visual system could process. […]

  5. […] This brilliance of our human body is the reason why researchers have been trying to break the enigma of computer vision by analyzing the visual mechanics of humans or other animals. Some of the earliest work in this direction was done by Hubel and Weisel with their famous cat experiment in 1959. Read more about it here. […]

  6. […] I have often seen the above example of light-deprived kittens as an argument that vision is “learned” (environmental) rather than “innate” (b…. So what, exactly, is occurring when kittens learn to perceive horizontal and vertical […]

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