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Psychological Review
1989, Vol. 96. No. 1, 145-167
Copyright 1989 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
0033-295 X/89/S00.75
A Neural Theory of Binocular Rivalry
Randolph Blake
Northwestern University
When the two eyes view discrepant monocular stimuli, stable single vision gives way to alternating
periods of monocular dominance; this is the well-known but little understoodphenomenon of binocular
rivalry. This article develops a neural theory of binocular rivalry that treats the phenomenon as
the default outcome when binocular correspondence cannot be established. The theory posits the
existence of monocular and binocular neurons arrayed within a functional processing module, with
monocular neurons playing a crucial role in signaling the stimulus conditionsinstigating rivalry and
generating inhibitory signals to implement suppression. Suppression is conceived as a local process
happening in parallel over the entire cortical representation of the binocular visual field. The strength
of inhibition causing suppression is related to the size of the pool of monocular neurons innervated
by the suppressed eye, and the duration of a suppression phase isattributed to the strength of excitation
generated by the suppressed stimulus. The theory is compared with three other contemporary
theories of binocular rivalry. The article closes with a discussion of some of the unresolved problems
related to the theory.
This article presents a neural theory of binocular rivalry. The
theory consists of a set of propositions that account for major
features ofbinocular rivalry. Some of these propositions are
based on empirical evidence, whereas others are more axiomatic
in form. A concise statement of each proposition follows a
short introductory section. Next, the detailed reasoning underlying
each proposition is elaborated upon, and evidence consistent
with the proposition is outlined. A comparison of the present
theory with several other recentmodels that include rivalry
within their domains follows. The article closes by describing
certain phenomena that are presently inconsistent with the theory
and by proposing some possible, testable reconciliations of
theory and data.
Background of the Theory
Binocular rivalry refers to the alternating periods of dominance
and suppression occasioned by stimulation of corresponding
retinalareas with dissimilar monocular stimuli. Rivalry
was actually described several centuries ago by Dutour
(1760), who noted alternations in perceived color when the two
Preparation of the manuscript was supported by Grant BNS 8418731
from the National Science Foundation. Substantial portions of this article
were prepared after the author joined Vfcnderbilt University, his present
affiliation.Some of the ideas in this article developed out of lively discussions
over the years with valued colleagues, most notably Robert Fox, Robert
O'Shea, David Westendorf, Michael Sloane, Karen Holopigian, and Jeremy
Wolfe; their stimulating contributions are deeply appreciated. I am
grateful also to Robert O'Shea, Mary Bravo, T. J. Mueller, David Westendorf,
David Rose, Ennio Mingolla, and RobertFox for their comments
on an earlier version of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Randolph
Blake, Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville,
Tennessee 37240.
eyes viewed different colors. It remained, however, for Wheatstone
(1838) to study the phenomenon systematically, which he
did in the course of his seminal work on stereopsis.To my
knowledge, Wheatstone was the first to publish a stereogram
demonstrating contour rivalry. Around the turn of the century,
Breese (1899, 1909) published a couple of influential monographs
detailing the stimulus conditions that trigger rivalry, and
many of Breese's careful observations remain definitive today.
Probably the single most significant piece of recent work on rivalry
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