How the brain understands pictures

August 09, 2005

The figure is famous: a deceptively simple line drawing that at first glance resembles a vase and, at the next, a pair of human faces in profile. When you look at this figure, your brain must rapidly decide what the various lines denote. Are they the outlines of the vase or the borders of two faces? How does your brain decide?

It does so in a fraction of a second via special nerve circuits in the brain's visual center that automatically organize information into a "whole" even as an individual's gaze and attention are focused on only one part, according to Johns Hopkins researchers writing in a recent issue of the journal Neuron.

"Our paper answers the century-old question of the basis of subconscious processes in visual perception, specifically, the phenomenon of figure-ground organization," said Rudiger von der Heydt, a professor in the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute. "Early in the 20th century, the Gestalt psychologists postulated the existence of mechanisms that process visual information automatically and independently of what we know, think or expect. Since then, there has always been the question as to whether these mechanisms actually exist. They do. Our work suggests that the system continuously organizes the whole scene, even though we usually are attending only to a small part of it."

The report, based on recordings of nerve cells in the visual cortex of macaque monkeys, suggests that this automatic processing of images is repeated each time an individual looks at something new, usually three to four times per second. What's more, the brain provides what von der Heydt calls "a sophisticated program" to select and process the information that is relevant at any given moment.

"The result of this organization is an internal data structure, quite similar to a database, that allows the attention mechanism to work efficiently," von der Heydt said. "An image can be compared with a bag of thousands of little Lego blocks in chaotic order. To pay attention to an object in space, the visual system first has to arrange this bag of blocks into useful 'chunks' and provide threads by which one or the other chunk can be pulled out for further processing."

He noted that the research provides the theoretical foundation that might one day lead to better diagnosis and treatment of human brain disorders.

"The last decades have seen rapid progress in the neurosciences at a very broad front, particularly at the molecular and cellular levels, and this progress makes it increasingly clear that we still lack sufficient understanding of brain function at the 'system level,'" he said. "We need to understand the basis of mental processes. Single cell recording in animals is only one approach to this formidable task. It is complemented by new brain imaging techniques, traditional psychophysics, psychology and computational and theoretical neuroscience. ... Understanding the function of the visual cortex will help to interpret neurological symptoms in diseases that produce disorders of vision."
-end-
This work was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The paper, "Figure and Ground in Visual Cortex: V2 Combines Stereoscopic Cues with Gestalt Rules" appeared in the July 7, 2005, issue of Neuron (Volume 47).

Johns Hopkins University

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.