1. Appetizing imagery puts visual perception on fast forward

    October 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    People rated images containing positive content as fading more smoothly compared with neutral and negative images, even when they faded at the same rate, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    “Our research shows that emotionally-charged stimuli, specifically positive and negative images, may influence the speed, or the temporal resolution, of visual perception,” says psychological scientist Kevin H. Roberts of the University of British Columbia.

    The idea that things in our environment, or even our own emotional states, can affect how we experience time is a common one. We say that time “drags” when we’re bored and it “flies” when we’re having fun. But how might this happen? Roberts and colleagues hypothesized that the emotional content of stimuli or experiences could impact the speed of our internal pacemaker.

    Specifically, they hypothesized that our motivation to approach positive stimuli or experiences would make us less sensitive to temporal details. Change in these stimuli or experiences would, therefore, seem relatively smooth, similar to what happens when you press ‘fast forward’ on a video. Our desire to avoid negative stimuli or experiences, on the other hand, would enhance our sensitivity to temporal details and would make changes seem more discrete and choppy, similar to a slow-motion video.

    To test this hypothesis, Roberts and colleagues used an approach common in psychophysics experiments — estimating relative magnitudes — to gauge how people’s moment-to-moment experiences vary when they view different types of stimuli.

    In one experiment, 23 participants looked at a total of 225 image pairs. In each pair, they first saw a standard stimulus that faded to black over 2 seconds and then saw a target stimulus that also faded to black over 2 seconds. The frame rate of the target stimulus varied, displaying at 16, 24, or 48 frames per second.

    Participants were generally sensitive to the differences in frame rate, as the researchers expected. Participants rated the smoothness of the target image relative to the standard image using a 21-point scale: The higher the frame rate of the target image, the smoother they rated it relative to the standard image.

    The emotional content of the images also made a difference in perceptions of smoothness. Regardless of the frame rate, participants rated negative images — which depicted things we generally want to avoid, including imagery related to confrontation and death — as the least smooth. They rated positive stimuli — depicting appetizing desserts — as the smoothest, overall.

    Most importantly, the researchers found that people perceived images that faded at the same rate differently depending on their content. Positive target images that faded at 16 fps seemed smoother than neutral target images that faded at the same rate. Positive images that faded at 24 fps seemed smoother than both negative and neutral images with the same frame rate. And positive images that faded at 48 fps seemed smoother than negative images at the same rate.

    Further analyses suggest that this effect occurred primarily because positive images elicited higher approach motivation.

    Because the words “smooth” and “choppy” could themselves come with positive or negative connotations, the researchers replaced them with “continuous” and “discrete” in a second experiment. Once again, they found that the emotional content of the images swayed how participants perceived the frame rate of the fade.

    Brain-activity data gathered in a third experiment indicated that the blurring of perceptual experience associated with positive images was accompanied by changes in high-level visual processing.

    “Even when we made adjustments to the instructions and the task structure, the overall effect remained — people subjectively reported seeing less fine-grained temporal changes in positive images, and they reported seeing more fine-grained temporal changes in negative images,” says Roberts.

    Together, these findings suggest that the emotional content of the images affected how participants experienced what they were seeing.

    “What remains to be seen is whether emotional stimuli impact objective measures of temporal processing,” says Roberts. “In other words, do individuals actually perceive less temporal information when they view positive images, or do they just believe they perceive less?”


  2. Study suggests flexibility of mindset determines whether someone judges other based on brands they use

    October 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Consumer Psychology press release:

    While it may seem like a given that people judge others by the brand of clothes they wear, the cars they drive and electronic gadgets they use, new research suggests that this may not be the case as often as we think.

    In a study recently published online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers discovered that people who have what is known as a “flexible mindset” are less likely to judge people based on the brands they use. Individuals with this mindset believe that behavior varies significantly over time and across different situations, so they are less inclined to make assumptions about someone’s character based on brand choice at one point in time.

    “Previous research has supported the idea that people universally form perceptions about others based on brands, but we have shown that it depends on an individual’s mindset about behavior,” says Ji Kyung Park, lead author and a marketing professor at the University of Delaware. Park worked with Deborah Roedder John, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, on the study.

    As opposed to those with a flexible mindset, people with more of a “fixed mindset” tend to believe that one’s behavior is consistent over time and across situations, and thus predicts the person’s personality. Park found that people with this mindset were much more likely to make judgements about people based on the brands they used. In one of the experiments, participants viewed a picture of a man driving a car that was either a Mercedes Benz or a car without a visible brand name. They were asked to rate the person on a list of personality traits. Then the participants answered a series of questions that were used to evaluate whether each participant was more partial to a fixed or a flexible mindset.

    The study revealed that participants with a fixed mindset rated the man driving the Mercedes as more sophisticated than the man driving a car without a visible brand name. But the participants with the flexible mindset rated the two men as equally sophisticated. The researchers showed the same effect when participants viewed a picture of a woman eating a box of Godiva chocolates versus a box of chocolates with no visible brand name.

    In a culture that is filled with opportunities to judge social status and character based on brands, these research results offer hope that not everyone lives by that standard, Park says. Yet there are still people with a fixed mindset whose perceptions of others are influenced by brand choices. To appeal to consumers who do not want to be judged by the fixed mindset population, marketers could offer certain products that minimize the display of the brand’s name on the item, Park explains.


  3. Study suggests possible genetic component to divorce running in families

    October 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Virginia Commonwealth University press release:

    Children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced when compared to those who grew up in two-parent families — and genetic factors are the primary explanation, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University in Sweden.

    “Genetics, the Rearing Environment, and the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce: A Swedish National Adoption Study,” which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, analyzed Swedish population registries and found that people who were adopted resembled their biological — but not adoptive — parents and siblings in their histories of divorce.

    “We were trying to answer the basic question: Why does divorce run in families?” said the study’s first author, Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU. “Across a series of designs using Swedish national registry data, we found consistent evidence that genetic factors primarily explained the intergenerational transmission of divorce.”

    In addition to Salvatore, the study was conducted with Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., professor of psychiatry and human and molecular genetics in the Department of Psychiatry at VCU’s School of Medicine, along with Swedish colleagues Sara Larsson Lönn, Ph.D.; Jan Sundquist, M.D., Ph.D.; and Kristina Sundquist, M.D., Ph.D., of the Center for Primary Health Care Research at Lund University.

    The study’s findings are notable because they diverge from the predominant narrative in divorce literature, which suggests that the offspring of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves because they see their parents struggling to manage conflict or lacking the necessary commitment, and they grow up to internalize that behavior and replicate it in their own relationships.

    “I see this as a quite significant finding. Nearly all the prior literature emphasized that divorce was transmitted across generations psychologically,” Kendler said. “Our results contradict that, suggesting that genetic factors are more important.”

    By recognizing the role that genetics plays in the intergenerational transmission of divorce, therapists may be able to better identify more appropriate targets when helping distressed couples, Salvatore said.

    “At present, the bulk of evidence on why divorce runs in families points to the idea that growing up with divorced parents weakens your commitment to and the interpersonal skills needed for marriage,” she said. “So, if a distressed couple shows up in a therapist’s office and finds, as part of learning about the partners’ family histories, that one partner comes from a divorced family, then the therapist may make boosting commitment or strengthening interpersonal skills a focus of their clinical efforts.”

    “However, these previous studies haven’t adequately controlled for or examined something else in addition to the environment that divorcing parents transmit to their children: genes,” she said. “And our study is, at present, the largest to do this. And what we find is strong, consistent evidence that genetic factors account for the intergenerational transmission of divorce. For this reason, focusing on increasing commitment or strengthening interpersonal skills may not be a particularly good use of time for a therapist working with a distressed couple.”

    The study’s findings suggest that it might be useful for therapists to target some of the more basic personality traits that previous research has suggested are genetically linked to divorce, such as high levels of negative emotionality and low levels of constraint, to mitigate their negative impact on close relationships.

    “For example, other research shows that people who are highly neurotic tend to perceive their partners as behaving more negatively than they objectively are [as rated by independent observers],” Salvatore said. “So, addressing these underlying, personality-driven cognitive distortions through cognitive-behavioral approaches may be a better strategy than trying to foster commitment.”


  4. Study suggests even open-label placebos work, if they are explained

    October 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Universität Basel press release:

    For some medical complaints, open-label placebos work just as well as deceptive ones. As psychologists from the University of Basel and Harvard Medical School report in the journal Pain, the accompanying rationale plays an important role when administering a placebo.

    The successful treatment of certain physical and psychological complaints can be explained to a significant extent by the placebo effect. The crucial question in this matter is how this effect can be harnessed without deceiving the patients. Recent empirical studies have shown that placebos administered openly have clinically significant effects on physical complaints such as chronic back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, episodic migraine and rhinitis.

    Cream for pain relief

    For the first time, researchers from the University of Basel, along with colleagues from Harvard Medical School, have compared the effects of administering open-label and deceptive placebos. The team conducted an experimental study with 160 healthy volunteers who were exposed to increasing heat on their forearm via a heating plate. The participants were asked to manually stop the temperature rise as soon as they could no longer stand the heat. After that, they were given a cream to relieve the pain.

    Some of the participants were deceived during the experiment: they were told that they were given a pain relief cream with the active ingredient lidocaine, although it was actually a placebo. Other participants received a cream that was clearly labeled as a placebo; they were also given fifteen minutes of explanations about the placebo effect, its occurrence and its effect mechanisms. A third group received an open-label placebo without any further explanation.

    The subjects of the first two groups reported a significant decrease in pain intensity and unpleasantness after the experiment. “The previous assumption that placebos only work when they are administered by deception needs to be reconsidered,” says Dr. Cosima Locher, a member of the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology and first author of the study.

    Stronger pain when no rationale is given

    When detailed explanations of the placebo effect were absent — as in the third group — the subjects reported significantly more intense and unpleasant pain. This suggests the crucial role of the accompanying rationale and communication when administering a placebo; the researchers speak of a narrative. The ethically problematic aspect of placebos, the deception, thus does not appear all that different from a transparent and convincing narrative. “Openly administering a placebo offers new possibilities for using the placebo effect in an ethically justifiable way,” says co-author Professor Jens Gaab, Head of the Division of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Basel.


  5. Researchers investigate neuronal traces of the unconscious

    October 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Bonn press release:

    Whether or not we consciously perceive the stimuli projected onto our retina is decided in our brain. A recent study by the University of Bonn shows how some signals dissipate along the processing path to conscious perception. This process begins at rather late stages of signal processing. By contrast, in earlier stages there is hardly any difference in the reaction of neurons to conscious and unconscious stimuli. The paper is published in Current Biology.

    The researchers are basing their study on a well-known phenomenon: When presented with two images in rapid succession, humans can only consciously perceive the second one if there is sufficient time between the two presentations. In this study the participants saw a series of pictures on a computer screen, where each image was presented for just over one tenth of a second. Before each series the participants were instructed to pay special attention to two target stimuli, and they were asked if those images were part of the series afterwards.

    “We varied the time between the two attended images,” explained Dr. Thomas P. Reber, one of the authors. “Sometimes they were presented directly one after the other, and sometimes there was one or even several images between them. Whenever both target stimuli were presented in close succession, participants reported in a little under half of the cases to only have seen the first one. This allowed us to compare conscious and unconscious processing of identical picture presentations.”

    A look inside the epileptic brain

    Reber works in the Department of Epileptology at the University Hospital of Bonn — one of the biggest epilepsy centers in Europe. Among its patients are severe cases of so-called medial temporal lobe epilepsy. A last resort for them can be the removal of brain tissue triggering epileptic seizures. In some cases, electrodes are implanted into the patient’s brain to localize the epileptic focus for later resection. As a byproduct, researchers can make use of this circumstance to virtually ‘watch’ the patients think.

    This was also the case during the latest study — the 21 participants were all epilepsy patients with special microelectrodes implanted in the temporal lobe. “That way we were able to measure the reaction of single nerve cells to visual stimuli,” explains Dr. Florian Mormann, Professor of Cognitive and Clinical Neurophysiology. “We wanted to investigate how the processing of images differs depending on whether they have been perceived consciously or not.”

    Seen: Yes. Consciously perceived: No.

    When an image is projected onto the retina, the respective information is transmitted along the optic nerve to the so-called visual cortex at the back of the skull. From here the signal branches out and part of it is projected back towards the forehead. The measurements show how the electric impulses change along this pathway. “In the back part of the temporal lobe, where the earlier processing steps take place, there are hardly any differences between consciously and unconsciously processed images,” says Dr. Reber. “The distinction of ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ follows significantly further down the processing stream than many researchers have been suspecting: On their way to the frontal areas of the temporal lobe, the impulses in response to unconsciously perceived images weaken, and they occur with an increasing delay.”

    The eye registers an image and generates a corresponding signal. However, in some cases this signal seems to be “disintegrating” before reaching the viewer’s consciousness, in this case resulting in the patient not perceiving the image. “It is remarkable,” says Reber, “We can show that the patient has been presented with a certain image — even if they have no conscious perception of it.” This basic research paper provides new insights on the border between conscious and unconscious perception.


  6. Study suggests link between BMI and how we assess food

    by Ashley

    From the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati press release:

    A new study demonstrated that people of normal weight tend to associate natural foods such as apples with their sensory characteristics. On the other hand, processed foods such as pizzas are generally associated with their function or the context in which they are eaten.

    “It can be considered an instance of ‘embodiment‘ in which our brain interacts with our body.” This is the comment made by Raffaella Rumiati, neuroscientist at the International School for Advanced Studies — SISSA in Trieste, on the results of research carried out by her group which reveals that the way we process different foods changes in accordance with our body mass index. With two behavioural and electroencephalographic experiments, the study demonstrated that people of normal weight tend to associate natural foods such as apples with their sensory characteristics such as sweetness or softness.

    On the other hand, processed foods such as pizzas are generally associated with their function or the context in which they are eaten such as parties or picnics.

    “The results are in line with the theory according to which sensory characteristics and the functions of items are processed differently by the brain,” comments Giulio Pergola, the work’s primary author. “They represent an important step forward in our understanding of the mechanisms at the basis of the assessments we make of food.” But that’s not all.

    Recently published in the Biological Psychology journal, the research also highlighted the ways in which underweight people pay greater attention to natural foods and overweight people to processed foods. Even when subjected to the same stimuli, these two groups show different electroencephalography signals. These results show once again the importance of cognitive neuroscience also in the understanding of extremely topical clinical fields such as dietary disorders.

     


  7. Study suggests neurons register familiar faces, even if they aren’t consciously recognised

    October 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Cell Press press release:

    When people see an image of a person they recognize — the famous tennis player Roger Federer or actress Halle Berry, for instance — particular cells light up in the brain. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on September 21 have found that those cells light up even when a person sees a familiar face or object but fails to notice it. The only difference in that case is that the neural activity is weaker and delayed in comparison to what happens when an observer consciously registers and can recall having seen a particular image.

    The findings offer new insight into the nature of conscious perception, the researchers say.

    “Our study finds that a ‘Roger Federer cell’ can also become active when its owner fails to notice the image of Roger Federer rapidly flickering by in a stream of other images,” says Florian Mormann of University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany. “Thus, we find that there is highly abstract information present in neuronal activity that is inaccessible to conscious experience.”

    The researchers made the discovery by recording the activity of 2,735 individual neurons in 21 neurosurgical patients implanted with brain electrodes for epilepsy monitoring. They took advantage of a phenomenon known as attentional blink in which people who attend to two familiar images in quick succession will often fail to notice the second. The experimental setup allowed the researchers to directly compare the neural response to seen and unseen presentations of the very same image.

    As expected, study participants often failed to notice the presence of a second target image, especially when it was presented soon after a first target image. The researchers found that the corresponding neurons fired either way. However, there was an observable difference in the strength and timing of that neural response.

    “Studying the activity of individual neurons in awake, behaving humans was key to picking up weak but informative signals from individual neurons during nonconscious perception, particularly in regions further down the processing stream, which are impossible to measure with conventional tools,” Mormann says. “We were quite surprised to see that timing of neuronal responses is indicative of whether participants report having seen the image or not.”

    The findings weigh in on theoretical debates about the nature of human consciousness, the researchers say. For instance, it hasn’t been clear whether consciousness is an all-or-nothing phenomenon or a matter of degrees. The researchers say the observation that neuronal firing occurs in both cases, but differently, argues in favor of consciousness as a more nuanced, graded phenomenon.

    The researchers say they’d now like to explore how the activity of individual neurons in one part of the brain is related to activity in other brain areas and how those connections relate to conscious awareness.


  8. Study looks at how facial expressions affect facial recognition

    September 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Bristol press release:

    Photos of the same person can look substantially different. For example, your passport photo may look quite different from your driving licence, or your face in holiday photos. In fact, these differences can mean you look like a different person from one photo to the next, to those that don’t know you.

    Research has shown when photos of an individual’s face are judged too dissimilar to go together, people will tend to think they show several different identities.

    Scientists from the University of Bristol tested this concept further by exploring what happens when the photos show faces with different expressions.

    Annabelle Redfern from the School of Experimental Psychology led this research which has been published in the journal i-Perception.

    She said: “We created packs of 40 cards, each card showing a different face. The packs were either of neutral, un-expressive faces, or of highly expressive faces. We asked people to sort the packs into piles, so that there was a pile for each person.

    “Even though there were only two different faces in the packs, people tended to think there were many more — between five and eight on average.

    “But when the faces were expressive, people also made another type of mistake: they confused the identities, and were more likely to place photos of both faces together, as if they were of the same person.”

    This study shows that expressive faces can cause identity confusions, where photos of different people are thought to be of the same person.

    It also demonstrates that we don’t ignore, or factor out, expressions when we recognise someone from their face.

    Annabelle added: “The next stage in this research, following up on this study, is to explore what happens when we increase the familiarity of a face.

    “As we start to learn a face, and how it expresses itself, then we find that expressions stop hindering the recognition process.

    “This makes a lot of sense, if you think about your own experience with faces; if you know someone, you will recognise their face, irrespective of what expression it has.”


  9. Reliance on ‘gut feelings’ linked to belief in fake news

    September 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release:

    People who tend to trust their intuition or to believe that the facts they hear are politically biased are more likely to stand behind inaccurate beliefs, a new study suggests.

    And those who rely on concrete evidence to form their beliefs are less likely to have misperceptions about high-profile scientific and political issues, said Kelly Garrett, the lead researcher and a professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

    “Scientific and political misperceptions are dangerously common in the U.S. today. The willingness of large minorities of Americans to embrace falsehoods and conspiracy theories poses a threat to society’s ability to make well-informed decisions about pressing matters,” Garrett said.

    “A lot of attention is paid to our political motivations, and while political bias is a reality, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that people have other kinds of biases too.”

    Garrett and co-author Brian Weeks of the University of Michigan published the study in the journal PLOS ONE. They examined data from three nationally representative surveys that included anywhere from 500 to almost 1,000 participants. Their aim was to better understand how people form their beliefs and how that might contribute to their willingness to accept ideas with little or no evidence to support them.

    They looked at how participants responded to 12 questions including “I trust my gut to tell me what’s true and what’s not,” “Evidence is more important than whether something feels true” and “Facts are dictated by those in power.”

    They used responses to these questions to assess people’s faith in intuition, their need for evidence, and their belief that “truth” is political.

    “These are characteristics that we expected would be important above and beyond the role of partisanship,” Garrett said. “We’re tapping into something about people’s understanding of the world, something about how they think about what they know, how they know it and what is true.”

    The researchers compared how participants’ approach to deciding what is true was related to their beliefs about hot-button topics. The study included questions about the debunked link between vaccines and autism and the science-based connection between human activity and climate change.

    Garrett and Weeks found that people who believe that truth is shaped by politics and power are more likely to embrace falsehoods. On the other hand, those who rely on evidence were less likely to believe those falsehoods.

    The researchers also evaluated survey respondents’ tendency to agree with seven well-known conspiracy theories. More than 45 percent said they didn’t buy that John F. Kennedy was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald alone; 33 percent agreed that the U.S. government was behind the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and 32 percent said Princess Diana’s death was orchestrated by the British royal family.

    Previous research has shown connections between belief in conspiracy theories and education level, religious fundamentalism and party affiliation, Garrett said.

    In this study, a belief that truth is political was the strongest predictor of whether someone would buy into conspiracy theories. Garrett also found that those who rely on intuition to assess the truth had a stronger tendency to endorse conspiracies.

    “While trusting your gut may be beneficial in some situations, it turns out that putting faith in intuition over evidence leaves us susceptible to misinformation,” said Weeks, who worked on the research as an Ohio State graduate student.

    Garrett said it’s important to acknowledge that our beliefs aren’t based solely upon political predispositions.

    “Misperceptions don’t always arise because people are blinded by what their party or favorite news outlet is telling them,” he said.

    The good news, as Garrett sees it? “Making an effort to base your beliefs on evidence is an easy way to help avoid being misled.”

    It’s also possible to influence others in a positive direction, he said, by sharing evidence in a calm, respectful manner when faced with misperceptions. If a Facebook friend, for instance, posts an inaccurate item, a link to a trusted news source or document can be helpful, Garrett said.

    “People sometimes say that it’s too hard to know what’s true anymore. That’s just not true. These results suggest that if you pay attention to evidence you’re less likely to hold beliefs that aren’t correct,” he said.

    “This isn’t a panacea — there will always be people who believe conspiracies and unsubstantiated claims — but it can make a difference.”


  10. Different brain areas interact to recognize partially covered shapes

    September 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine press release:

    How does a driver’s brain realize that a stop sign is behind a bush when only a red edge is showing? Or how can a monkey suspect that the yellow sliver in the leaves is a round piece of fruit?

    The human (and non-human) primate brain is remarkable in recognizing objects when the view is nearly blocked. This skill let our ancient ancestors find food and avoid danger. It continues to be critical to making sense of our surroundings.

    UW Medicine scientists are conducting research to discover ways that the brain operates when figuring out shapes, from those that are completely visible to those that are mostly hidden.

    Although computers can beat the world’s best chess players, scientists have not yet designed artificial intelligence that performs as well as the average person in distinguishing shapes that are semi-obscured.

    Studies of signals generated by the brain are helping to fill in the picture of what goes on when looking at, then trying to recognize, shapes. Such research is also showing why attempts have failed to mechanically replicate the ability of humans and primates to identify partially hidden objects.

    The most recent results of this work are published Sept. 19 in the scientific journal eLife.

    The senior investigator is Anitha Pasupathy, associate professor of biological structure at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and a member of the Washington National Primate Research Center.

    There’s a computer game at the center that can be played to tell if two shapes are alike or different. A correct answer wins a treat. As dots start to appear over the shapes, the task becomes more difficult.

    The researchers learned that, during the simpler part of the game, the brain generates signals in certain areas of the visual cortex — the part for sight. The neurons, or brain nerve cells, in that section respond more strongly to uncovered shapes.

    However, when the shapes begin to disappear behind the dots, certain neurons in the part of the brain that governs functions like memory and planning — the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex — respond more intensely.

    The researchers also observed that many of the neurons in the visual cortex had two quick response peaks. The second one occurred after the response onset in the thinking section of the brain. This seemed to enhance the response of the neurons in the visual cortex to the partially hidden shapes.

    The results, according to Pasupathy, suggest how signals from the two different areas of the brain — thinking and vision — could interact to assist in recognizing shapes that are not fully visible.

    They researches believe that other regions of the brain, in addition to those they studied, are likely to participate in object recognition.

    “It’s not just the information flowing from the eyes into the sensory location of the brain that’s important to know what a shape is when it’s partially covered,” she said. “Feedback from other regions of the brain also help in making this determination.”

    Relying only on the image of an object that appears on the eye’s retina makes it hard to make out what it is, because that image could have many interpretations.

    Recognition stems not only from the physical appearance of the object, but also the scene, the context, the degree of covering, and the viewer’s experience, the researchers explained.

    The study helps advance knowledge about how the brain typically works in solving this frequently encountered perceptual puzzle.

    “The neural mechanisms that mediate perceptual capacities, such as this one, have been largely unknown, which is why we were interested in studying them,” Pasupathy noted.

    Their recent findings also make the scientists wonder if impairments in this and other types of communication between the cognitive and sensory parts of the brain might have a role in certain difficulties that people with autism or Alzheimer’s encounter.

    Pasupathy said, for example, some people with autism have a profound inability to function in cluttered or disorderly environments. They have problems processing sensory information and can become confused and distressed. Many patients with Alzheimer’s disease experience what is called visual agnosia. They have no trouble seeing objects, but they can’t tell what they are.

    “So understanding how the sensory and cognitive areas in the brain communicate is of utmost importance to ultimately understand what might go wrong inside the nervous system that can cause these deficits,” Pasupathy said.