News Topic visual
About these topic collections
I’ve been reporting on memory research for over ten years and these topic pages are simply collections of all the news items I have made on a particular topic. They do not pretend to be in any way exhaustive! I cover far too many areas within memory to come anywhere approaching that. What I aim to do is provide breadth, rather than depth. Outside my own area of cognitive psychology, it is difficult to know how much weight to give to any study (I urge you to read my blog post on what constitutes scientific evidence). That (among other reasons) is why my approach in my news reporting is based predominantly on replication and consistency. It's about the aggregate. So here is the aggregate of those reports I have at one point considered of sufficient interest to discuss. If you know of any research you would like to add to the collection, feel free to write about it in a comment (please provide a reference).
Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
More light shed on distinction between long and short-term memory
The once clear-cut distinction between long- and short-term memory has increasingly come under fire in recent years. A new study involving patients with a specific form of epilepsy called 'temporal lobe epilepsy with bilateral hippocampal sclerosis' has now clarified the distinction. The patients, who all had severely compromised hippocampi, were asked to try and memorize photographic images depicting normal scenes. Their memory was tested and brain activity recorded after five seconds or 60 minutes. As expected, the patients could not remember the images after 60 minutes, but could distinguish seen-before images from new at five seconds. However, their memory was poor when asked to recall details about the images. Brain activity showed that short-term memory for details required the coordinated activity of a network of visual and temporal brain areas, whereas standard short-term memory drew on a different network, involving frontal and parietal regions, and independent of the hippocampus.
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Individual differences in working memory capacity depend on two factors
A new computer model adds to our understanding of working memory, by showing that working memory can be increased by the action of the prefrontal cortex in reinforcing activity in the parietal cortex (where the information is temporarily stored). The idea is that the prefrontal cortex sends out a brief stimulus to the parietal cortex that generates a reverberating activation in a small subpopulation of neurons, while inhibitory interactions with neurons further away prevents activation of the entire network. This lateral inhibition is also responsible for limiting the mnemonic capacity of the parietal network (i.e. provides the limit on your working memory capacity). The model has received confirmatory evidence from an imaging study involving 25 volunteers. It was found that individual differences in performance on a short-term visual memory task were correlated with the degree to which the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was activated and its interconnection with the parietal cortex. In other words, your working memory capacity is determined by both storage capacity (in the posterior parietal cortex) and prefrontal top-down control. The findings may help in the development of ways to improve working memory capacity, particularly when working memory is damaged.
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Some short-term memories die suddenly, no fading
We don’t remember everything; the idea of memory as being a video faithfully recording every aspect of everything we have ever experienced is a myth. Every day we look at the world and hold a lot of what we say for no more than a few seconds before discarding it as not needed any more. Until now it was thought that these fleeting visual memories faded away, gradually becoming more imprecise. Now it seems that such memories remain quite accurate as long as they exist (about 4 seconds), and then just vanish away instantly. The study involved testing memory for shapes and colors in 12 adults, and it was found that the memory for shape or color was either there or not there – the answers either correct or random guesses. The probability of remembering correctly decreased between 4 and 10 seconds.
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Where visual short-term memory occurs
Working memory used to be thought of as a separate ‘store’, and now tends to be regarded more as a process, a state of mind. Such a conception suggests that it may occur in the same regions of the brain as long-term memory, but in a pattern of activity that is somehow different from LTM. However, there has been little evidence for that so far. Now a new study has found that information in WM may indeed be stored via sustained, but low, activity in sensory areas. The study involved volunteers being shown an image for one second and instructed to remember either the color or the orientation of the image. After then looking at a blank screen for 10 seconds, they were shown another image and asked whether it was the identical color/orientation as the first image. Brain activity in the primary visual cortex was scanned during the 10 second delay, revealing that areas normally involved in processing color and orientation were active during that time, and that the pattern only contained the targeted information (color or orientation).
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The finding is consistent with that of another study published this month, in which participants were shown two examples of simple striped patterns at different orientations and told to hold either one or the other of the orientations in their mind while being scanned. Orientation is one of the first and most basic pieces of visual information coded and processed by the brain. Using a new decoding technique, researchers were able to predict with 80% accuracy which of the two orientations was being remembered 11 seconds after seeing a stimulus, from the activity patterns in the visual areas. This was true even when the overall level of activity in these visual areas was very weak, no different than looking at a blank screen.
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Even toddlers can ‘chunk' information for better remembering
We all know it’s easier to remember a long number (say a phone number) when it’s broken into chunks. Now a study has found that we don’t need to be taught this; it appears to come naturally to us. The study showed 14 months old children could track only three hidden objects at once, in the absence of any grouping cues, demonstrating the standard limit of working memory. However, with categorical or spatial cues, the children could remember more. For example, when four toys consisted of two groups of two familiar objects, cats and cars, or when six identical orange balls were grouped in three groups of two.
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Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/105/29/9926.abstract?sid=c01302b6-cd8e-4072-842c-7c6fcd40706f
Working memory has a fixed number of 'slots'
A study that showed volunteers a pattern of colored squares for a tenth of a second, and then asked them to recall the color of one of the squares by clicking on a color wheel, has found that working memory acts like a high-resolution camera, retaining three or four features in high detail. Unlike a digital camera, however, it appears that you can’t increase the number of images you can store by lowering the resolution. The resolution appears to be constant for a given individual. However, individuals do differ in the resolution of each feature and the number of features that can be stored.
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And another study of working memory has attempted to overcome the difficulties involved in measuring a person’s working memory capacity (ensuring that no ‘chunking’ of information takes place), and concluded that people do indeed have a fixed number of ‘slots’ in their working memory. In the study, participants were shown two, five or eight small, scattered, different-colored squares in an array, which was then replaced by an array of the same squares without the colors, after which the participant was shown a single color in one location and asked to indicate whether the color in that spot had changed from the original array.
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Impressive feats in visual memory
In light of all the recent experiments emphasizing how small our short-term visual memory is, it’s comforting to be reminded that, nevertheless, we have an amazing memory for pictures — in the right circumstances. Those circumstances include looking at images of familiar objects, as opposed to abstract artworks, and being motivated to do well (the best-scoring participant was given a cash prize). In the study, 14 people aged 18 to 40 viewed 2,500 images, one at a time, for a few seconds. Afterwards, they were shown pairs of images and asked to select the exact image they had seen earlier. The previously viewed item could be paired with either an object from a novel category, an object of the same basic-level category, or the same object in a different state or pose. Stunningly, participants on average chose the correct image 92%, 88% and 87% of the time, in each of the three pairing categories respectively.
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Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/105/38/14325.abstract
Attention grabbers snatch lion's share of visual memory
It’s long been thought that when we look at a visually "busy" scene, we are only able to store a very limited number of objects in our visual short-term or working memory. For some time, this figure was believed to be four or five objects, but a recent report suggested it could be as low as two. However, a new study reveals that although it might not be large, it’s more flexible than we thought. Rather than being restricted to a limited number of objects, it can be shared out across the whole image, with more memory allocated for objects of interest and less for background detail. What’s of interest might be something we’ve previously decided on (i.e., we’re searching for), or something that grabs our attention. Eye movements also reveal how brief our visual memory is, and that what our eyes are looking at isn’t necessarily what we’re ‘seeing’ — when people were asked to look at objects in a particular sequence, but the final object disappeared before their eyes moved on to it, it was found that the observers could more accurately recall the location of the object that they were about to look at than the one that they had just been looking at.
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More on how short-term memory works
It’s been established that visual working memory is severely limited — that, on average, we can only be aware of about four objects at one time. A new study explored the idea that this capacity might be affected by complexity, that is, that we can think about fewer complex objects than simple objects. It found that complexity did not affect memory capacity. It also found that some people have clearer memories of the objects than other people, and that this is not related to how many items they can remember. That is, a high IQ is associated with the ability to hold more items in working memory, but not with the clarity of those items.
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Support for labeling as an aid to memory
A study involving an amnesia-inducing drug has shed light on how we form new memories. Participants in the study participants viewed words, photographs of faces and landscapes, and abstract pictures one at a time on a computer screen. Twenty minutes later, they were shown the words and images again, one at a time. Half of the images they had seen earlier, and half were new. They were then asked whether they recognized each one. For one session they were given midazolam, a drug used to relieve anxiety during surgical procedures that also causes short-term anterograde amnesia, and for one session they were given a placebo.
It was found that the participants' memory while in the placebo condition was best for words, but the worst for abstract images. Midazolam impaired the recognition of words the most, impaired memory for the photos less, and impaired recognition of abstract pictures hardly at all. The finding reinforces the idea that the ability to recollect depends on the ability to link the stimulus to a context, and that unitization increases the chances of this linking occurring. While the words were very concrete and therefore easy to link to the experimental context, the photographs were of unknown people and unknown places and thus hard to distinctively label. The abstract images were also unfamiliar and not unitized into something that could be described with a single word.
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Discovery disproves simple concept of memory as 'storage space'
The idea of memory “capacity” has become more and more eroded over the years, and now a new technique for measuring brainwaves seems to finally knock the idea on the head. Consistent with recent research suggesting that a crucial problem with aging is a growing inability to ignore distracting information, this new study shows that visual working memory depends on your ability to filter out irrelevant information. Individuals have long been characterized as having a “high” working memory capacity or a “low” one — the assumption has been that these people differ in their storage capacity. Now it seems it’s all about a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness. People with high capacity have a much better ability to ignore irrelevant information.
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Language cues help visual learning in children
A study of 4-year-old children has found that language, in the form of specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud, helped them remember mirror image visual patterns. The children were shown cards bearing red and green vertical, horizontal and diagonal patterns that were mirror images of one another. When asked to choose the card that matched the one previously seen, the children tended to mistake the original card for its mirror image, showing how difficult it was for them to remember both color and location. However, if they were told, when viewing the original card, a mnemonic cue such as ‘The red part is on the left’, they performed “reliably better”.
The paper was presented by a graduate student at the 17th annual meeting of the American Psychological Society, held May 26-29 in Los Angeles.
An advantage of age
A study comparing the ability of young and older adults to indicate which direction a set of bars moved across a computer screen has found that although younger participants were faster when the bars were small or low in contrast, when the bars were large and high in contrast, the older people were faster. The results suggest that the ability of one neuron to inhibit another is reduced as we age (inhibition helps us find objects within clutter, but makes it hard to see the clutter itself). The loss of inhibition as we age has previously been seen in connection with cognition and speech studies, and is reflected in our greater inability to tune out distraction as we age. Now we see the same process in vision.
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Why working memory capacity is so limited
There’s an old parlor game whereby someone brings into a room a tray covered with a number of different small objects, which they show to the people in the room for one minute, before whisking it away again. The participants are then required to write down as many objects as they can remember. For those who perform badly at this type of thing, some consolation from researchers: it’s not (entirely) your fault. We do actually have a very limited storage capacity for visual short-term memory.
Now visual short-term memory is of course vital for a number of functions, and reflecting this, there is an extensive network of brain structures supporting this type of memory. However, a new imaging study suggests that the limited storage capacity is due mainly to just one of these regions: the posterior parietal cortex. An interesting distinction can be made here between registering information and actually “holding it in mind”. Activity in the posterior parietal cortex strongly correlated with the number of objects the subjects were able to remember, but only if the participants were asked to remember. In contrast, regions of the visual cortex in the occipital lobe responded differently to the number of objects even when participants were not asked to remember what they had seen.
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Brain signal predicts working memory capacity
Our visual short-term memory may have an extremely limited capacity, but some people do have a greater capacity than others. A new study reveals that an individual's capacity for such visual working memory can be predicted by his or her brainwaves. In the study, participants briefly viewed a picture containing colored squares, followed by a one-second delay, and then a test picture. They pressed buttons to indicate whether the test picture was identical to -- or differed by one color -- from the one seen earlier. The more squares a subject could correctly identify having just seen, the greater his/her visual working memory capacity, and the higher the spike of corresponding brain activity – up to a point. Neural activity of subjects with poorer working memory scores leveled off early, showing little or no increase when the number of squares to remember increased from 2 to 4, while those with high capacity showed large increases. Subjects averaged 2.8 squares.
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Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
Learning without desire or awareness
We have long known that learning can occur without attention. A recent study demonstrates learning that occurs without attention, without awareness and without any task relevance. Subjects were repeatedly presented with a background motion signal so weak that its direction was not visible; the invisible motion was an irrelevant background to the central task that engaged the subject's attention. Despite being below the threshold of visibility and being irrelevant to the central task, the repetitive exposure improved performance specifically for the direction of the exposed motion when tested in a subsequent suprathreshold test. These results suggest that a frequently presented feature sensitizes the visual system merely owing to its frequency, not its relevance or salience.
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Visual memory better than previously thought
Why is it that you can park your car at a huge mall and find it a few hours later without much problem, or make your way through a store you have never been to before? The answer may lie in our ability to build up visual memories of a scene in a short period of time. A new study counters current thinking that visual memory is generally poor and that people quickly forget the details of what they have seen. It appears that even with very limited visual exposure to a scene, people are able to build up strong visual memories and, in fact, their recall of objects in the scene improved with each exposure. It is suggested these images aren't stored in short-term or long-term memory, but in medium-term memory, which lasts for a few minutes and appears to be specific to visual information as opposed to verbal or semantic information. "Medium-term memory depends on the visual context of the scene, such as the background, furniture and walls, which seems to be key in the ability to keep in mind the location and identity of objects. These disposable accumulated visual memories can be recalled in a few minutes if faced with that scene again, but are discarded in a day or two if the scene is not viewed again so they don't take up valuable memory space."
Melcher, D. 2001. Persistence of visual memory for scenes. Nature, 412 (6845), 401.
Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
Which color boosts brain performance depends on task
Previous research has produced contradictory results as to which color helps memory the most: some have said blue or green; others red. A series of six experiments has found that the answer depends on the task. Red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31% compared to blue, while blue environmental cues produced significantly more creativity in such tasks as brainstorming. The effects are thought to be due to learned associations, such that red is associated with danger, mistakes and caution, while blue is associated with calm and openness. The study also found that these effects carry over to consumer packaging and advertising.
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Why are uniforms uniform? Because color helps us track objects
Laboratory tests have revealed that humans can pay attention to only 3 objects at a time. Yet there are instances in the real world — for example, in watching a soccer match — when we certainly think we are paying attention to more than 3 objects. Are we wrong? No. Anew study shows how we do it — it’s all in the color coding. People can focus on more than three items at a time if those items share a common color. But, logically enough, no more than 3 color sets.
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Scenes in natural color remembered better than black and white
In a series of experiments, subjects were found to remember photographs of colored natural scenes significantly better than black and white images, regardless of how long they saw the images. Falsely colored natural scenes were remembered no better than scenes in black and white. If shown the images in color but tested on them in black and white (and vice versa), the images were not remembered as well. It may be that color helps by providing an extra 'tag' on the stored memory code stored.
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Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
Video games may help visuospatial processing and multitasking
Another study has come out showing that expert video gamers have improved mental rotation skills, visual and spatial memory, and multitasking skills. The researchers conclude that training with video games may serve to reduce gender differences in visual and spatial processing, and some of the cognitive declines that come with aging.
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The limited nature of the 'Mozart Effect'
The so-called ‘Mozart effect’ (which is far more limited than commonly reported in the popular press, and which argues that listening to Mozart can temporally improve spatial abilities, such as mental rotation) has been found in some studies but not in others. Now a study of 50 musicians and 50 non-musicians may explain the inconsistent results. The study found that only non-musicians had their spatial processing skills improved by listening to Mozart — partly because the musicians were better at the mental rotation task to start with. The effect may have to do with non-musicians processing music and spatial information in the right hemisphere, while musicians tend to use both hemispheres. The effect may also be restricted to right-handed non-musicians — all the participants were right-handed, and left-handed people are more likely to process information in both hemispheres. And finally, the effect may be further restricted to some types of spatial task — the present study used the same task as originally used. So, what we can say is that right-handed non-musicians may temporarily improve their mental rotation skills by listening to Mozart.
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Meditation technique can temporarily improve visuospatial abilities
And continuing on the subject of visual short-term memory, a study involving experienced practitioners of two styles of meditation: Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP) has found that, although meditators performed similarly to nonmeditators on two types of visuospatial tasks (mental rotation and visual memory), when they did the tasks immediately after meditating for 20 minutes (while the nonmeditators rested or did something else), practitioners of the DY style of meditation showed a dramatic improvement compared to OP practitioners and controls. In other words, although the claim that regular meditation practice can increase your short-term memory capacity was not confirmed, it does appear that some forms of meditation can temporarily (and dramatically) improve it. Since the form of meditation that had this effect was one that emphasizes visual imagery, it does support the idea that you can improve your imagery and visual memory skills (even if you do need to ‘warm up’ before the improvement is evident).
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Why it’s so hard to disrupt your routine
New research has added to our understanding of why we find it so hard to break a routine or overcome bad habits. The problem lies in the competition between the striatum and the hippocampus. The striatum is involved with habits and routines, for example, it records cues or landmarks that lead to a familiar destination. It’s the striatum that enables you to drive familiar routes without much conscious awareness. If you’re travelling an unfamiliar route however, you need the hippocampus, which is much ‘smarter’. The mouse study found that when the striatum was disrupted, the mice had trouble navigating using landmarks, but they were actually better at spatial learning. When the hippocampus was disrupted, the converse was true. This may help us understand, and treat, certain mental illnesses in which patients have destructive, habit-like patterns of behavior or thought. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, and drug addiction all involve abnormal function of the striatum. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be thought of as trying to learn to use one of these systems to overcome and, ultimately, to re-train the other.
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More light shed on how episodic memories are formed
A rat study has revealed more about the workings of the hippocampus. Previous studies have identified “place cells” in the hippocampus – neurons which become more active in response to a particular spatial location. Activity in the hippocampus while rats searched for food in a maze where the starting and ending point was varied, has found that, while some cells signaled location alone, others were also sensitive to recent or impending events – i.e., activation depended upon where the rat had just been or where it intended to go. This finding helps us understand how episodic memories are formed – how, for example, a spatial location can trigger a reminder of an intended action at a particular time, but not others.
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More learned about how spatial navigation works in humans
Researchers monitored signals from individual brain cells as patients played a computer game in which they drove around a virtual town in a taxi, searching for passengers who appeared in random locations and delivering them to their destinations. Previous research has found specific cells in the brains of rodents that respond to “place”, but until now we haven’t known whether humans have such specific cells. This study identifies place cells (primarily found in the hippocampus), as well as “view” cells (responsive to landmarks; found mainly in the parahippocampal region) and “goal” cells (responsive to goals, found throughout the frontal and temporal lobes). Some cells respond to combinations of place, view and goal — for example, cells that responded to viewing an object only when that object was a goal.
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Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
Children recognize other children’s faces better than adults do
It is well known that people find it easier to distinguish between the faces of people from their own race, compared to those from a different race. It is also known that adults recognize the faces of other adults better than the faces of children. This may relate to holistic processing of the face (seeing the face as a whole rather than analyzing it feature by feature) — it may be that we more easily recognize faces for which we have strong holistic ‘templates’. A new study has tested to see whether the same is true for children aged 8 to 13. The study found that children had stronger holistic processing for other children than adults did. This may reflect an own-age bias, but I’d love to see what happens with teachers, or any other adults who spend much of their time with many children.
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Alcoholics show abnormal brain activity when processing facial expressions
Excessive chronic drinking is known to be associated with deficits in comprehending emotional information, such as recognizing different facial expressions. Now an imaging study of abstinent long-term alcoholics has found that they show decreased and abnormal activity in the amygdala and hippocampus when looking at facial expressions. They also show increased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the failure of the limbic areas. The finding is consistent with other studies showing alcoholics invoking additional and sometimes higher-order brain systems to accomplish a relatively simple task at normal levels. The study compared 15 abstinent long-term alcoholics and 15 healthy, nonalcoholic controls, matched on socioeconomic backgrounds, age, education, and IQ.
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More insight into encoding of identity information
Different pictures of, say, Marilyn Monroe can evoke the same mental image — even hearing or reading her name can evoke the same concept. So how exactly does that work? A study in which pictures, spoken and written names were used has revealed that single neurons in the hippocampus and surrounding areas respond selectively to representations of the same individual regardless of the sensory cue. Moreover, this occurs very quickly, not only to very familiar people — the same process was observed with the researcher’s image and name, although he was unknown to the subject a day or two earlier. It also appears that the degree of abstraction reflects the hierarchical structure within the mediotemporal lobe.
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Monkeys and humans use the same mechanism to recognize faces
The remarkable ability of humans to distinguish faces depends on sensitivity to unique configurations of facial features. One of the best demonstrations for this sensitivity comes from our difficulty in detecting changes in the orientation of the eyes and mouth in an inverted face — what is known as the Thatcher effect . A new study has revealed that this effect is also demonstrated among rhesus macaque monkeys, indicating that our skills in facial recognition date back 30 million years or more.
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Face recognition may vary more than thought
We know that "face-blindness" (prosopagnosia) may afflict as many as 2%, but until now it’s been thought that either a person has ‘normal’ face recognition skills, or they have a recognition disorder. Now for the first time a new group has been identified: those who are "super-recognizers", who have a truly remarkable ability to recognize faces, even those only seen in passing many years earlier. The finding suggests that these two abnormal groups are merely the ends of a spectrum — that face recognition ability varies widely.
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Oxytocin improves human ability to recognize faces but not places
The breastfeeding hormone oxytocin has been found to increase social behaviors like trust. A new study has found that a single dose of an oxytocin nasal spray resulted in improved recognition memory for faces, but not for inanimate objects, suggesting that different mechanisms exist for social and nonsocial memory. Further analysis showed that oxytocin selectively improved the discrimination of new and familiar faces — participants with oxytocin were less likely to mistakenly characterize unfamiliar faces as familiar.
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Insight into 'face blindness'
An imaging study has finally managed to see a physical difference in the brains of those with congenital prosopagnosia (face blindness): reduced connectivity in the region that processes faces. Specifically, a reduction in the integrity of the white matter tracts in the ventral occipito-temporal cortex, the extent of which was related to the severity of the impairment.
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Visual expertise marked by left-side bias
It’s been established that facial recognition involves both holistic processing (seeing the face as a whole rather than the sum of parts) and a left-side bias. The new study explores whether these effects are specific to face processing, by seeing how Chinese characters, which share many of the same features as faces, are processed by native Chinese and non-Chinese readers. It was found that non-readers tended to look at the Chinese characters more holistically, and that native Chinese readers prefer characters that are made of two left sides. These findings suggest that whether or not we use holistic processing depends on the task performed with the object and its features, and that holistic processing is not used in general visual expertise – but left-side bias is.
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Object recognition fast and early in processing
We see through our eye and with our brain. Visual information flows from the retina through a hierarchy of visual areas in the brain until it reaches the temporal lobe, which is ultimately responsible for our visual perceptions, and also sends information back along the line, solidifying perception. This much we know, but how much processing goes on at each stage, and how important feedback is compared to ‘feedforward’, is still under exploration. A new study involving children about to undergo surgery for epilepsy (using invasive electrode techniques) reveals that feedback from the ‘smart’ temporal lobe is less important than we thought, that the brain can recognize objects under a variety of conditions very rapidly, at a very early processing stage. It appears that certain areas of the visual cortex selectively respond to specific categories of objects.
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New brain region associated with face recognition
Using a new technique, researchers have found evidence for neurons that are selectively tuned for gender, ethnicity and identity cues in the cingulate gyrus, a brain area not previously associated with face processing.
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No specialized face area
Another study has come out casting doubt on the idea that there is an area of the brain specialized for faces. The fusiform gyrus has been dubbed the "fusiform face area", but a detailed imaging study has revealed that different patches of neurons respond to different images. However, twice as many of the patches are predisposed to faces versus inanimate objects (cars and abstract sculptures), and patches that respond to faces outnumber those that respond to four-legged animals by 50%. But patches that respond to the same images are not physically connected, implying a "face area" may not even exist.
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Face blindness is a common hereditary disorder
A German study has found 17 cases of the supposedly rare disorder prosopagnosia (face blindness) among 689 subjects recruited from local secondary schools and a medical school. Of the 14 subjects who consented to further interfamilial testing, all of them had at least one first degree relative who also had it. Because of the compensation strategies that sufferers learn to utilize at an early age, many of them do not realize that it is an actual disorder or even realize that other members of their family have it — which may explain why it has been thought to be so rare. The disorder is one of the few cognitive dysfunctions that has only one symptom and is inherited. It is apparently controlled by a defect in a single gene.
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Nothing special about face recognition
A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that there is nothing special about face recognition. The researchers have found experimental support for their model of how a brain circuit for face recognition could work. The model shows how face recognition can occur simply from selective processing of shapes of facial features. Moreover, the model equally well accounted for the recognition of cars.
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Rare learning disability particularly impacts face recognition
A study of 14 children with Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD) has found that the children were poor at recognizing faces. NLD has been associated with difficulties in visual spatial processing, but this specific deficit with faces hasn’t been identified before. NLD affects less than 1% of the population and appears to be congenital.
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Single cell recognition research finds specific neurons for concepts
An intriguing study surprises cognitive researchers by showing that individual neurons in the medial temporal lobe are able to recognize specific people and objects. It’s long been thought that concepts such as these require a network of cells, and this doesn’t deny that many cells are involved. However, this new study points to the importance of a single brain cell. The study of 8 epileptic subjects found variable responses from subjects, but within subjects, individuals showed remarkably specific responses to concepts. For example, a single neuron in the left posterior hippocampus of one subject responded to all pictures of actress Jennifer Aniston, and also to Lisa Kudrow, her co-star on the TV hit "Friends", but not to pictures of Jennifer Aniston together with actor Brad Pitt, and not, or only very weakly, to other famous and non-famous faces, landmarks, animals or objects. In another patient, pictures of actress Halle Berry activated a neuron in the right anterior hippocampus, as did a caricature of the actress, images of her in the lead role of the film "Catwoman," and a letter sequence spelling her name. The results suggest an invariant, sparse and explicit code, which might be important in the transformation of complex visual percepts into long-term and more abstract memories.
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Evidence faces are processed like words
It has been suggested that faces and words are recognized differently, that faces are identified by wholes, whereas words and other objects are identified by parts. However, a recent study has devised a new test, that finds people use letters to recognize words and facial features to recognize faces.
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You can read this article online at http://www.journalofvision.org//5/1/6/.
Face blindness runs in families
A study of those with prosopagnosia (face blindness) and their relatives has revealed a genetic basis to the neurological condition. An earlier questionnaire study by the same researcher (himself prosopagnosic) suggests the impairment may be more common than has been thought. The study involved 576 biology students. Nearly 2% reported face-blindness symptoms.
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Faces must be seen to be recognized
In an interesting new perspective on face recognition, a series of perception experiments have revealed that identifying a face depends on actually seeing it, as opposed to merely having the image of the face fall on the retina. In other words, attention is necessary.
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New insight into the relationship between recognizing faces and recognizing expressions
The quest to create a computer that can recognize faces and interpret facial expressions has given new insight into how the human brain does it. A study using faces photographed with four different facial expressions (happy, angry, screaming, and neutral), with different lighting, and with and without different accessories (like sunglasses), tested how long people took to decide if two faces belonged to the same person. Another group were tested to see how fast they could identify the expressions. It was found that people were quicker to recognize faces and facial expressions that involved little muscle movement, and slower to recognize expressions that involved a lot of movement. This supports the idea that recognition of faces and recognition of facial expressions are linked – it appears, through the part of the brain that helps us understand motion.
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How the brain is wired for faces
The question of how special face recognition is — whether it is a process quite distinct from recognition of other objects, or whether we are simply highly practiced at this particular type of recognition — has been a subject of debate for some time. A new imaging study has concluded that the fusiform face area (FFA), a brain region crucially involved in face recognition, extracts configural information about faces rather than processing spatial information on the parts of faces. The study also indicated that the FFA is only involved in face recognition.
Yovel, G. & Kanwisher, N. 2004. Face Perception: Domain Specific, Not Process Specific. Neuron, 44 (5), 889–898.
How the brain recognizes a face
Face recognition involves at least three stages. An imaging study has now localized these stages to particular regions of the brain. It was found that the inferior occipital gyrus was particularly sensitive to slight physical changes in faces. The right fusiform gyrus (RFG), appeared to be involved in making a more general appraisal of the face and compares it to the brain's database of stored memories to see if it is someone familiar. The third activated region, the anterior temporal cortex (ATC), is believed to store facts about people and is thought to be an essential part of the identifying process.
Rotshtein, P., Henson, R.N.A., Treves, A., Driver, J. & Dolan, R.J. 2005. Morphing Marilyn into Maggie dissociates physical and identity face representations in the brain. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 107-113.
Memories of crime stories influenced by racial stereotypes
The influence of stereotypes on memory, a well-established phenomenon, has been demonstrated anew in a study concerning people's memory of news photographs. In the study, 163 college students (of whom 147 were White) examined one of four types of news stories, all about a hypothetical Black man. Two of the stories were not about crime, the third dealt with non-violent crime, while the fourth focused on violent crime. All four stories included an identical photograph of the same man. Afterwards, participants reconstructed the photograph by selecting from a series of facial features presented on a computer screen. It was found that selected features didn’t differ from the actual photograph in the non-crime conditions, but for the crime stories, more pronounced African-American features tended to be selected, particularly so for the story concerning violent crime. Participants appeared largely unaware of their associations of violent crime with the physical characteristics of African-Americans.
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Special training may help people with autism recognize faces
People with autism tend to activate object-related brain regions when they are viewing unfamiliar faces, rather than a specific face-processing region. They also tend to focus on particular features, such as a mustache or a pair of glasses. However, a new study has found that when people with autism look at a picture of a very familiar face, such as their mother's, their brain activity is similar to that of control subjects – involving the fusiform gyrus, a region in the brain's temporal lobe that is associated with face processing, rather than the inferior temporal gyrus, an area associated with objects. Use of the fusiform gyrus in recognizing faces is a process that starts early with non-autistic people, but does take time to develop (usually complete by age 12). The study indicates that the fusiform gyrus in autistic people does have the potential to function normally, but may need special training to operate properly.
Aylward, E. 2004. Functional MRI studies of face processing in adolescents and adults with autism: Role of experience. Paper presented February 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.
Dawson, G. & Webb, S. 2004. Event related potentials reveal early abnormalities in face processing autism. Paper presented February 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.
How faces become familiar
With faces, familiarity makes a huge difference. Even when pictures are high quality and faces are shown at the same time, we make a surprising number of mistakes when trying to decide if two pictures are of the same person – when the face is unknown to us. On the other hand, even when picture quality is very poor, we’re very good at recognising familiar faces. So how do faces become familiar to us? Recent research led by Vicki Bruce (well-known in this field) showed volunteers video sequences of people, episodes of unfamiliar soap operas, and images of familiar but previously unseen characters from radio's The Archers and voices from The Simpsons. They confirmed previous research suggesting that for unfamiliar faces, memory appears dominated by the 'external' features, but where the face is well-known it is 'internal' features such as the eyes, nose and mouth, that are more important. The shift to internal features occurred rapidly, within minutes. Speed of learning was unaffected by whether the faces were experienced as static or moving images, or with or without accompanying voices, but faces which belonged to well-known, though previously unseen, personal identities were learned more easily.
Bruce, V., Burton, M. et al. 2003. Getting To Know You – How We Learn New Faces. A research report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Face recognition may not be a special case
Many researchers have argued that the brain processes faces quite separately from other objects — that faces are a special class. Research has shown many ways in which face recognition does seem to be a special case, but it could be argued that the differences are due not to a separate processing system, but to people’s expertise with faces. We have, after all, plenty of evidence that babies are programmed right from the beginning to pay lots of attention to faces. A new study has endeavored to answer this question, by looking at separate and concurrent perception of faces and cars, by people who were “car buffs” and those who were not. If expert processing of these objects depends on a common mechanism (presumed to be related to the perception of objects as wholes), then car perception would be expected to interfere with concurrent face perception. Moreover, such interference should get worse, as the subjects became more expert at processing cars. This is indeed what was found. Experts were found to recognize cars holistically, but this recognition interfered with their recognition of familiar faces. While novices processed the cars piece by piece, in a slower process that did not interfere with face recognition. This study follows on from earlier research in which car fanciers and bird watchers were found to identify cars and birds, respectively, using the same area of the brain as is used in face recognition. A subsequent study found that people trained to identify novel, computer-generated objects, began to recognize them holistically (as is done in face recognition). This latest study shows that, not only is experts’ car recognition occurring in the same brain region as face recognition, but that the same neural circuits are involved.
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Detection of foreign faces faster than faces of your own race
A recent study tracked the time it takes for the brain to perceive the faces of people of other races as opposed to faces from the same race. The faces were mixed with images of everyday objects, and the subjects were given the distracting task of counting butterflies. The study found that the Caucasian subjects took longer to detect Caucasian faces than Asian faces. The study complements an earlier imaging study that showed that, when people are actively trying to recognize faces, they are better at recognizing members of their own race. [see Why recognizing a face is easier when the race matches our own]
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Women better at recognizing female but not male faces
Women’s superiority in face recognition tasks appears to be due to their better recognition of female faces. There was no difference between men and women in the recognition of male faces.
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Imaging confirms people knowledge processed differently
Earlier research has demonstrated that semantic knowledge for different classes of inanimate objects (e.g., tools, musical instruments, and houses) is processed in different brain regions. A new imaging study looked at knowledge about people, and found a unique pattern of brain activity was associated with person judgments, supporting the idea that person knowledge is functionally dissociable from other classes of semantic knowledge within the brain.
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Identity memory area localized
An imaging study investigating brain activation when people were asked to answer yes or no to statements about themselves (e.g. 'I forget important things', 'I'm a good friend', 'I have a quick temper'), found consistent activation in the anterior medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate. This is consistent with lesion studies, and suggests that these areas of the cortex are involved in self-reflective thought.
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Recognizing yourself is different from recognizing other people
Recognition of familiar faces occurs largely in the right side of the brain, but new research suggests that identifying your own face occurs more in the left side of your brain. Evidence for this comes from a split-brain patient (a person whose corpus callosum – the main bridge of nerve fibers between the two hemispheres of the brain - has been severed to minimize the spread of epileptic seizure activity). The finding needs to be confirmed in studies of people with intact brains, but it suggests not only that there is a distinction between recognizing your self and recognizing other people you know well, but also that memories and knowledge about oneself may be stored largely in the left hemisphere.
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Differential effects of encoding strategy on brain activity patterns
Encoding and recognition of unfamiliar faces in young adults were examined using PET imaging to determine whether different encoding strategies would lead to differences in brain activity. It was found that encoding activated a primarily ventral system including bilateral temporal and fusiform regions and left prefrontal cortices, whereas recognition activated a primarily dorsal set of regions including right prefrontal and parietal areas. The type of encoding strategy produced different brain activity patterns. There was no effect of encoding strategy on brain activity during recognition. The left inferior prefrontal cortex was engaged during encoding regardless of strategy.
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Babies' experience with faces leads to narrowing of perception
A theory that infants' experience in viewing faces causes their brains (in particular an area of the cerebral cortex known as the fusiform gyrus) to "tune in" to the types of faces they see most often and tune out other types, has been given support from a study showing that 6-month-old babies were significantly better than both adults and 9-month-old babies in distinguishing the faces of monkeys. All groups were able to distinguish human faces from one another.
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Different brain regions implicated in the representation of the structure and meaning of pictured objects
Imaging studies continue apace! Having established that that part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus is important in picture naming, a new study further refines our understanding by studying the cerebral blood flow (CBF) changes in response to a picture naming task that varied on two dimensions: familiarity (or difficulty: hard vs easy) and category (tools vs animals). Results show that although familiarity effects are present in the frontal and left lateral posterior temporal cortex, they are absent from the fusiform gyrus. The authors conclude that the fusiform gyrus processes information relating to an object's structure, rather than its meaning. The blood flows suggest that it is the left posterior middle temporal gyrus that is involved in representing the object's meaning.
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Debate over how the brain deals with visual information
Neuroscientists can't agree on whether the brain uses specific regions to distinguish specific objects, or patterns of activity from different regions. The debate over how the brain deals with visual information has been re-ignited with apparently contradictory findings from two research groups. One group has pinpointed a distinct region in the brain that responds selectively to images of the human body, while another concludes that the representations of a wide range of image categories are dealt with by overlapping brain regions. (see below)
Specific brain region responds specifically to images of the human body
Cognitive neuroscientists have identified a new area of the human brain that responds specifically when people view images of the human body. They have named this region of the brain the 'extrastriate body area' or 'EBA'. The EBA can be distinguished from other known anatomical subdivisions of the visual cortex. However, the EBA is in a region of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus, where other areas have been implicated in the perception of socially relevant information such as the direction that another person's eyes are gazing, the sound of human voices, or the inferred intentions of animate entities.
Brain scan patterns identify objects being viewed
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) scientists have shown that they can tell what kind of object a person is looking at — a face, a house, a shoe, a chair — by the pattern of brain activity it evokes. Earlier NIMH fMRI studies had shown that brain areas that respond maximally to a particular category of object are consistent across different people. This new study finds that the full pattern of responses — not just the areas of maximal activation — is consistent within the same person for a given category of object. Overall, the pattern of fMRI responses predicted the category with 96% accuracy. Accuracy was l00% for faces, houses and scrambled pictures.
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Why recognizing a face is easier when the race matches our own
We have known for a while that recognizing a face is easier when its owner's race matches our own. An imaging study now shows that greater activity in the brain's expert face-discrimination area occurs when the subject is viewing faces that belong to members of the same race as their own.
Golby, A. J., Gabrieli, J. D. E., Chiao, J. Y. & Eberhardt, J. L. 2001. Differential responses in the fusiform region to same-race and other-race faces. Nature Neuroscience, 4, 845-850.
Boys' and girls' brains process faces differently
Previous research has suggested a right-hemisphere superiority in face processing, as well as adult male superiority at spatial and non-verbal skills (also associated with the right hemisphere of the brain). This study looked at face recognition and the ability to read facial expressions in young, pre-pubertal boys and girls. Boys and girls were equally good at recognizing faces and identifying expressions, but boys showed significantly greater activity in the right hemisphere, while the girls' brains were more active in the left hemisphere. It is speculated that boys tend to process faces at a global level (right hemisphere), while girls process faces at a more local level (left hemisphere). This may mean that females have an advantage in reading fine details of expression. More importantly, it may be that different treatments might be appropriate for males and females in the case of brain injury.
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Children's recognition of faces
Children aged 4 to 7 were found to be able to use both configural and featural information to recognize faces. However, even when trained to proficiency on recognizing the target faces, their recognition was impaired when a superfluous hat was added to the face.
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Differences in face perception processing between autistic and normal adults
An imaging study compared activation patterns of adults with autism and normal control subjects during a face perception task. While autistic subjects could perform the face perception task, none of the regions supporting face processing in normals were found to be significantly active in the autistic subjects. Instead, in every autistic patient, faces maximally activated aberrant and individual-specific neural sites (e.g. frontal cortex, primary visual cortex, etc.), which was in contrast to the 100% consistency of maximal activation within the traditional fusiform face area (FFA) for every normal subject. It appears that, as compared with normal individuals, autistic individuals `see' faces utilizing different neural systems, with each patient doing so via a unique neural circuitry.
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Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
Age-related eye disease associated with cognitive impairment
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of visual impairment in industrialized nations, and like Alzheimer's disease, involves the buildup of beta-amyloid peptides in the brain, as well as sharing similar vascular risk factors. A study of over 2000 older adults (69-97) has revealed an association between early-stage AMD and cognitive impairment, as assessed by the Digit Symbol Substitution Test (a test of attention and processing speed). There was no association with performance on the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination (used to assess dementia).
It’s worth noting that in the same journal two studies into the association between dietary fat intake and AMD appeared. The first, four-year, study involved over 6700 older adults and found that higher trans-unsaturated fat intake was associated with a higher incidence of AMD, while higher omega-3 fatty acid and higher olive oil intake were each associated with a lower incidence. The second, ten-year, study involving nearly 2500 older adults, found regular consumption of fish, greater intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and low intake of linoleic acid (perhaps because a higher intake implies a lower intake of omega-3 oils? linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid), were all associated with a lower incidence of AMD. Fish and omega-3 oils have of course been similarly associated with lower rates of dementia and age-related cognitive impairment.
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Age-related vision problems may be associated with cognitive impairment
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) develops when the macula, the portion of the eye that allows people to see in detail, deteriorates. An investigation into the relationship between vision problems and cognitive impairment in 2,946 patients has been carried out by The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) Research Group. Tests were carried out every year for four years. Those who had more severe AMD had poorer average scores on cognitive tests, an association that remained even after researchers considered other factors, including age, sex, race, education, smoking, diabetes, use of cholesterol-lowering medications and high blood pressure. Average scores also decreased as vision decreased. It’s possible that there is a biological reason for the association; it is also possible that visual impairment reduces a person’s capacity to develop and maintain relationships and to participate in stimulating activities.
Chaves, P.H.M. et al. 2006. Association Between Mild Age-Related Eye Disease Study Research Group. 2006. Cognitive Impairment in the Age-Related Eye Disease Study: AREDS Report No. 16. Archives of Ophthalmology,124, 537-543.
The reorganization of the visual cortex in congenitally blind people
Studies indicate that congenitally blind people have superior verbal memory abilities than the sighted. A new study helps us understand why this is so. Some 25% of the human brain is devoted to vision. Until now it was assumed that loss of vision rendered these regions useless. Now it appears that in those blind from birth, the part of the occipital cortex usually involved in vision is utilized for other purposes. Extensive regions in the occipital cortex, in particular the primary visual cortex, are activated not only during Braille reading, but also during performances of verbal memory tasks, such as recalling a list of abstract words. No such activation was found in a sighted control group. It also appears that the greater the occipital activation, the higher the scores in the verbal memory tests.
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