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The mind maps the visual world with minimal means

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A study of human vision published today shows that our perception of the world around us may rest on what amounts to a sketch.

The scientists took images of real life scenes and boiled them down to only the barest of outlines; participants viewed the images while they were being monitored by a brain scanner. The minimal sketches triggered the same patterns of brain activity as the original full-color photos – enough for the scientists to detect what sort of scene was being displayed from the brain image alone. Stanford Report’s Dan Stober writes that the scientists sometimes refer to this as “mind reading:”

The subject looks at the photos, but says nothing. The researchers, however, can usually tell which photo the volunteer is watching at any given moment, aided by sophisticated software that interprets the signals coming from the scan. They glean clues not only by noting what part of the brain is especially active, but also by analyzing the patterns created by the firing neurons.

Fei-Fei Li, PhD, a computer scientist at the Stanford Vision Lab and senior author of the study, spoke to me about what the study might mean for medicine and the design of computer-assisted vision devices for the blind. “To help the visually impaired, we need to understand how vision is processed by the brain,” she said. “This study takes us a step closer to understanding the neural mechanisms we’d need to simulate in a device that would fill in for part of the vision pathway.”

The researchers also reflected in their paper (subscription required) on what the work says about minimalist art throughout human history, from cave paintings to Zen-inspired art – even children’s drawings:

Although line drawings lack many of the defining characteristics seen in the real world (color, most texture, most shading, etc.), they nevertheless appear to capture some essential structure that makes them useful as a way to depict the world for artistic expression or as a visual record. In fact, children use “boundary lines” or “embracing lines” to define the shapes of objects and object parts in their first attempts to depict the world around them.

Photo by nitrohepcat

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