I have read the wikipedia article on receptive fields (RFs). There, a receptive field is defined as:

The receptive field of an individual sensory neuron is the particular region of the sensory space (e.g., the body surface, or the visual field) in which a stimulus will trigger the firing of that neuron

Now in the online course that I am taking, the slides of prof. Rao defines the receptive field as:

specific properties of a sensory stimulus that generate a strong response from the cell.

The first definition states that the RF is a sensory area, while the second one is saying that it is the stimulus and its properties.

Which one of these options is correct, or are they both correct?

  • $\begingroup$ the receptive field includes all properties of the stimulus that determine a neuron's response. the sensory area is one such property of the stimulus. other properties might include intensity, frequency, duration, etc. the receptive field is the subspace of the entire multi-dimensional sensory space that a neuron responds to. $\endgroup$
    – honi
    Jan 28, 2016 at 16:56

1 Answer 1


Short answer
A receptive field is an area in which stimulation leads to response of a particular sensory neuron.

A receptive field is often functionally characterized by electrophysiological experiments. During these experiments, a certain area of the body is stimulated: e.g., a certain part of the visual field is illuminated, or a certain area of the skin is haptically stimulated (Fig. 1), etc.. Then it is determined if a neuron shows a response, either a stimulation (increased firing rate), or inhibition (decreased firing rate). By probing multiple, overlapping areas, the RF can be characterized.

Levine and Shefner (1991) define a receptive field as an "area in which stimulation leads to response of a particular sensory neuron".

The RF is hence a property of the neuron and not of the stimulus.

However, that property of the neuron depends heavily on the stimulus. For example, an ON retinal ganglion cell will not respond when the, say, red-cones in the center of its receptive field in the retina are illuminated with UV light, while it will vigorously respond when the light is red. It is here where your professor may have been hinting at, i.e., at the close interplay between stimulus and response.

Fig. 1. Schematic of the receptive field (RF) of a pain in the skin. The RF is determined by the arborations of the free nerve endings in the dendritic zone of the pain receptor cell. source: Lumen Learning


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.