Nav: Home

Researchers find brain's 'physics engine'

August 08, 2016

Researchers Find Brain's 'Physics Engine'Predicts how world behaves; among 'most important aspects of cognition for survival'

Whether or not they aced the subject in high school, human beings are physics masters when it comes to understanding and predicting how objects in the world will behave. A Johns Hopkins University cognitive scientist has found the source of that intuition, the brain's "physics engine."

This engine, which comes alive when people watch physical events unfold, is not in the brain's vision center, but in a set of regions devoted to planning actions, suggesting the brain performs constant, real-time physics calculations so people are ready to catch, dodge, hoist or take any necessary action, on the fly. The findings, which could help design more nimble robots, are set to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We run physics simulations all the time to prepare us for when we need to act in the world," said lead author Jason Fischer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "It is among the most important aspects of cognition for survival. But there has been almost no work done to identify and study the brain regions involved in this capability."

Fischer, along with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted a series of experiments to find the parts of the brain involved in physical inference. First they had 12 subjects look at videos of Jenga-style block towers. While monitoring their brain activity, the team asked the subjects either to predict where the blocks would land should the tower topple, or guess if the tower had more blue or yellow blocks. Predicting the direction of falling blocks involved physics intuition, while the color question was merely visual.

Next, the team had other subjects watch a video of two dots bouncing around a screen. They asked subjects to predict the next direction the dots would head, based either on physics or social reasoning.

With both the blocks and dots, the team found, when subjects attempted to predict physical outcomes, the most responsive brain regions included the premotor cortex and the supplementary motor area - the brain's action planning areas.

"Our findings suggest that physical intuition and action planning are intimately linked in the brain," Fischer said. "We believe this might be because infants learn physics models of the world as they hone their motor skills, handling objects to learn how they behave. Also, to reach out and grab something in the right place with the right amount of force, we need real-time physical understanding."

In the last part of the experiment, the team asked subjects to look at short movie clips -- just to look; they received no other instructions -- while having their brain activity monitored. Some of the clips had a lot of physics content, others very little. The team found that the more physical content in a clip, the more the key brain regions activated.

"The brain activity reflected the amount of physical content in a movie, even if people weren't consciously paying attention to it," Fischer said. "This suggests that we are making physical inferences all the time, even when we're not even thinking about it."

The findings could offer insight into movement disorders such as apraxia, as it's very possible that people with damage to the motor areas of the brain also have what Fischer calls "a hidden impairment" -- trouble making physical judgments.

A better understanding of how the brain runs physics calculations might also enrich robot design. A robot built with a physics model, constantly running in its programming almost like a video game, could navigate the world more fluidly.
-end-
Note: Related video here

Fischer's co-authors are John G. Mikhael, now a student in the Harvard/MIT M.D.-Ph.D. program; and Joshua B. Tenenbaum and Nancy Kanwisher, both professors at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Award F32-HD075427, National Eye Institute grant EY13455 and NSF Science and Technology Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines CCF-1231216.

CONTACT:

Jill Rosen
Office: 443-997-9906
Cell: 443-547-8805
jrosen@jhu.edu

Johns Hopkins University

Related Brain Activity Articles:

More brain activity is not always better when it comes to memory and attention
Potential new ways of understanding the cause of cognitive impairments, such as problems with memory and attention, in brain disorders including schizophrenia and Alzheimer's are under the spotlight in a new research review.
Researchers to predict cognitive dissonance according to brain activity
A new study by HSE researchers has uncovered a new brain mechanism that generates cognitive dissonance -- a mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs or values, or experiences difficulties in making decisions.
Brain activity can be used to predict reading success up to 2 years in advance
By measuring brainwaves, it is possible to predict what a child's reading level will be years in advance, according to research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.
There's a close association between magnetic systems and certain states of brain activity
Scientists from the University of Granada (UGR) have proven for the first time that there is a close relationship between several emerging phenomena in magnetic systems (greatly studied by condensed matter physicists) and certain states of brain activity.
Hormone can enhance brain activity associated with love and sex
The hormone kisspeptin can enhance activity in brain regions associated with sexual arousal and romantic love, according to new research.
Manipulating brain activity to boost confidence
Is it possible to directly boost one's own confidence by directly training the brain?
Brain activity may predict risk of falls in older people
Measuring the brain activity of healthy, older adults while they walk and talk at the same time may help predict their risk of falls later, according to a study published in the Dec.
Neuro chip records brain cell activity
In order to understand how the brain controls functions, such as simple reflexes or learning and memory, we must be able to record the activity of large networks and groups of neurons.
Too much activity in certain areas of the brain is bad for memory and attention
Researchers led by Dr Tobias Bast in the School of Psychology at The University of Nottingham have found that faulty inhibitory neurotransmission and abnormally increased activity in the hippocampus impairs our memory and attention.
Brain changes after menopause may lead to lack of physical activity
Researchers from the University of Missouri have found a connection between lack of ovarian hormones and changes in the brain's pleasure center, a hotspot in the brain that processes and reinforces messages related to reward, pleasure, activity and motivation for physical exercise.

Related Brain Activity Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Moving Forward
When the life you've built slips out of your grasp, you're often told it's best to move on. But is that true? Instead of forgetting the past, TED speakers describe how we can move forward with it. Guests include writers Nora McInerny and Suleika Jaouad, and human rights advocate Lindy Lou Isonhood.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...