Color is a perceptual construct that arises from neural processing in hierarchically organized cortical visual areas. Previous research, however, often failed to distinguish between neural responses driven by stimulus chromaticity versus perceptual color experience. An unsolved question is whether the neural responses at each stage of cortical processing represent a physical stimulus or a color we see. The present study dissociated the perceptual domain of color experience from the physical domain of chromatic stimulation at each stage of cortical processing by using a switch rivalry paradigm that caused the color percept to vary over time without changing the retinal stimulation. Using functional MRI (fMRI) and a model-based encoding approach, we found that neural representations in higher visual areas, such as V4 and VO1, corresponded to the perceived color, whereas responses in early visual areas V1 and V2 were modulated by the chromatic light stimulus rather than color perception. Our findings support a transition in the ascending human ventral visual pathway, from a representation of the chromatic stimulus at the retina in early visual areas to responses that correspond to perceptually experienced colors in higher visual areas.
color perception, dissociation of stimulus and color percept, ventral visual pathway