Our brains, both their visual and non-visual areas, mobilize and work in tandem when we try to spot a lost item – be it a contact lens on a bathroom floor or a key in grass on a lawn.
At least, that what a recent study by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered.
According to a press release from the school, human brains are wired so we can focus on searching – and finding – lost pets, among other things.
What does this mean? If someone is looking for a youngster lost in a crowd, “the brain areas usually dedicated to recognizing other objects such as animals, or even the areas governing abstract thought, shift their focus and join the search party,” the press release said.
So the brain rapidly switches into “a highly focused child-finder,” redirecting resources it uses for other mental tasks.
“Our results show that our brains are much more dynamic than previously thought, rapidly reallocating resources based on behavioral demands, and optimizing our performance by increasing the precision with which we can perform relevant tasks,” Tolga Cukur, a researcher at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study published the journal Nature Neuroscience.
“As you plan your day at work, for example, more of the brain is devoted to processing time, tasks, goals and rewards, and as you search for your cat, more of the brain becomes involved in recognition of animals,” he said.
The finding, UC said, helps explain why people find it difficult to concentrate on more than one task at a time. The results also illuminate how people are able to shift their attention to challenging tasks, and may provide offer greater insight into neurobehavioral and attention deficit disorders such as ADHD.
The study used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity of study participants as they searched for people or vehicles in movie clips. In one experiment, participants held down a button whenever a person appeared in the movie, according to UC. In another, they did the same with vehicles.
The brain scans measured neural activity via blood flow in thousands of locations across the brain.
“Researchers used regularized linear regression analysis, which finds correlations in data, to build models showing how each of the roughly 50,000 locations near the cortex responded to each of the 935 categories of objects and actions seen in the movie clips,” the press release said.
Then they compared how much of the cortex was devoted to detecting humans or vehicles depending on whether or not each of those categories was the search target.
They saw that when participants searched for humans, relatively more of the cortex was devoted to humans, and when they searched for vehicles, more of the cortex was devoted to vehicles.
For example, areas that were normally involved in recognizing specific visual categories such as plants or buildings switched to become attuned to humans or vehicles, vastly expanding the area of the brain engaged in the search, UC said.
“These changes occur across many brain regions, not only those devoted to vision,” Cukur said. “In fact, the largest changes are seen in the prefrontal cortex, which is usually thought to be involved in abstract thought, long-term planning, and other complex mental tasks.”
The findings build on an earlier UC study that showed how the brain organizes thousands of animate and inanimate objects into what researchers call a “continuous semantic space,” according to the school.
“Those findings challenged previous assumptions that every visual category is represented in a separate region of the visual cortex,” the press release said. “Instead, researchers found that categories are actually represented in highly organized, continuous maps.”