How Does Your Brain Chop Through The Clutter?

How does our brain cut past all the clutter thrown at us every day to get to what it wants?  Tweets and texts, iPods and iPads, smart phones and smarter tablets.  Is it any wonder we're having a harder and harder time focusing on just about anything?

That's where the beauty of our brain comes in.  According to, a new study finds it's not tough at all.  It involves a special area of neurons.

 “Most of the objects in any given visual scene are not that important, so how does the brain select or attend to important ones?”the Web site quotes study senior author David Freedman, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago. “It does this in a very flexible way, changing moment by moment depending on what is being looked for.”

The visual cortex of the brain possesses multiple, interconnected regions that are responsible for processing different aspects of the raw visual signal gathered by the eyes, newswise notes. "Basic information on motion and color are known to route through two such regions, but how the brain combines these streams into something usable for decision-making or other higher-order processes remained unclear."

To investigate this process, researchers looked at monkeys who were shown a rapid series of visual images. An initial image showed either a group of red dots moving upwards or yellow dots moving downwards, which served as an instruction for which specific colors and directions were relevant during that trial. The subjects were rewarded when they released a lever when this image later reappeared. Subsequent images were composed of different colors of dots moving in different directions, among which was the initial image.

As subjects performed the required task and looked for a specific combination of color and motion, certain neurons became highly active. They did not respond, however, when the subjects passively viewed the same images without an accompanying task.

When the team further investigated the responses of these neurons, they discovered that they possessed a unique characteristic. "Individual neurons shifted their sensitivity to color and direction toward the relevant color and motion features for that trial. When the subject looked for red dots moving upwards, for example, a neuron would respond strongly to directions close to upward motion and to colors close to red. If the task was switched to another color and direction seconds later, that same neuron would be more responsive to the new combination," newswise reports.

Researchers developed a model for how these specific neurons bring together both basic color and motion information.  The team believes that this region plays an important role in making sense of basic sensory information, and they are trying to better understand the brain-wide neuronal circuitry involved in this process.


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