Jul 23, 2019 | Updated: 09:13 AM EDT

Study of the Brain Revealed the Mathematics of Identifying Objects

May 29, 2019 03:28 PM EDT

Study of the Brain Revealed the Mathematics of Identifying Objects
(Photo : Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

Human brains have a remarkable ability to spot new objects and figure out how to manipulate them, just as a child snaps Legos together and a pickpocket plucking a wallet from your bag. For long, scientists have believed that the brain accomplishes this feat by methodically interpreting visual and textural cues such as an object's edges or boundaries.

However, a new study suggests that human brains require only a tiny bit of information, as well as its previous experience, to calculate a complete mental representation of a new object. The results of the study will help to explain the mental mathematics that enables us to quickly know what a different object looks like merely by touching it or the way an object feels from sight alone.

Researchers at Columbia University, the University of Cambridge and the Central European University led the study and reported in the journal eLife. It illustrates the brain's natural power to learn quickly and generalize.

The study's co-senior author and principal investigator at Columbia's Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Daniel Wolpert, Ph.D., said that our brains' ability to single out one object from many by touch, the way pickpockets use their fingers to hone in on a wallet deep inside a purse, is a broadly used skill, and key to our ability to interact with the world.

About 30 years ago, scientists attempting to understand how we identify individual objects proposed that the edges or boundaries of each item allow us to distinguish one object from the next. But Dr. Wolpert and the research team hypothesized that this explanation did not tell the whole story and was perhaps a smaller part of a much larger, more generalized principle of how the brain infers properties about its surroundings.

Mate Lengyel, Ph.D., professor of computational neuroscience from the University of Cambridge, a research fellow at the Central European University and one of the senior authors of the study said that they wondered whether human brains could do more with less. Perhaps, they don't need to acquire and analyze boundary information systematically to identify an object, but can instead work out an object's identity by performing astute statistical analyses that also incorporate memories and experiences.

Dr. Wolpert said that their study shows that human brains are wondrously adept at generalizing from one modality such as vision to another such as touch. This may be because human brains have calculated a statistical understanding of how objects behave based on their previous experiences. This research further reveals that the computations of how human brains perform are sufficiently robust for achieving a multitude of cognitive feats, whether it be picking someone's pocket or imagining the feet of a leather purse in a window display.

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