MacArthur Fellows Program

Robert Shapley

Neurophysiologist | Class of 1986

New York, New York
42 at time of award
Published August 1, 1986

About Robert's Work

Robert Shapley is a visual neurophysiologist who studies the relationship between visual perception and the activity of single neurons and neural networks in the brain.

Shapley investigates the visual pathways of the brain as a communication system, using the tools of systems analysis and communication theory.  His experiments have revealed a functional specialization in the neurons along the visual pathway from eye to brain.  He discovered that two neural pathways, now labeled P and M, which carry signals from retina to cerebral cortex, differ in their sensitivity to contrast.  Shapley’s current work concerns the neural basis of perception of form.  He is studying the dynamics of the formation of illusory contours, and the dynamics of neural responses in the visual cortex.  He is the editor of Contrast Sensitivity (1993), and his numerous articles have appeared in such publications as Neuron and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.


Shapley is the Natalie Clews Spencer Professor of the Sciences, professor of neural science, psychology, and biology, a member of the faculty of the Center for Neural Science, and director of the Program in Theoretical Neurobiology at New York University. 

Shapley received an A.B. (1965) from Harvard College and a Ph.D. (1970) from Rockefeller University.

Recent News

Robert Shapley continues his research on the visual cortex and visual perceptions. His lab’s ultimate goals are to relate neuronal activity in the visual cortex to visual perception and to use V1 as a model system that reveals fundamental processes of the cerebral cortex. Building realistic neural network models of the cortex is important for reaching the second goal, and the best model he and colleagues have developed is a recurrent excitatory and inhibitory network. The model needs strong cortical inhibition to explain many phenomena in the visual cortex, for instance, the existence of simple and complex cells, orientation selectivity and the correlation of orientation selectivity with other feature selectivities, and spectral peaks in the cortical local field potential.

Updated July 2015

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