The details of the anatomy and function of multisensory neurons help to answer the question of how the brain integrates stimuli appropriately. In order to understand the details, we need to discuss a neuron’s receptive field. All over the brain, neurons can be found that respond only to stimuli presented in a very specific region of the space immediately surrounding the perceiver. That region is called the neuron’s receptive field. If a stimulus is presented in a neuron’s receptive field, then that neuron responds by increasing or decreasing its firing rate. If a stimulus is presented outside of a neuron’s receptive field, then there is no effect on the neuron’s firing rate. Importantly, when two neurons send their information to a third neuron, the third neuron’s receptive field is the combination of the receptive fields of the two input neurons. This is called neural convergence, because the information from multiple neurons converges on a single neuron. In the case of multisensory neurons, the convergence arrives from different sensory modalities. Thus, the receptive fields of multisensory neurons are the combination of the receptive fields of neurons located in different sensory pathways.
Now, it could be the case that the neural convergence that results in multisensory neurons is set up in a way that ignores the locations of the input neurons’ receptive fields. Amazingly, however, these crossmodal receptive fields overlap. For example, a multisensory neuron in the superior colliculus might receive input from two unimodal neurons: one with a visual receptive field and one with an auditory receptive field. It has been found that the unimodal receptive fields refer to the same locations in space—that is, the two unimodal neurons respond to stimuli in the same region of space. Crucially, the overlap in the crossmodal receptive fields plays a vital role in the integration of crossmodal stimuli. When the information from the separate modalities is coming from within these overlapping receptive fields, then it is treated as having come from the same location—and the neuron responds with a superadditive (enhanced) response. So, part of the information that is used by the brain to combine multimodal inputs is the location in space from which the stimuli came.
This pattern is common across many multisensory neurons in multiple regions of the brain. Because of this, researchers have defined the spatial principle of multisensory integration: Multisensory enhancement is observed when the sources of stimulation are spatially related to one another. A related phenomenon concerns the timing of crossmodal stimuli. Enhancement effects are observed in multisensory neurons only when the inputs from different senses arrive within a short time of one another (e.g., Recanzone, 2003).