(Roughly) Daily

Cents and Sensibility…

As we sail into a year during which it threatens to be more important than ever that one look to the efficacy of one’s spending, science has an encouraging word…  or image.

Researchers at UC San Diego have determined that the areas of the brain responsible for vision respond more strongly to “objects of value.”

Visual areas of the brain, alit with the sight of value

Led by John Serences, assistant professor of psychology and head of the Perception and Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, the study is published in the Dec. 26 issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron.  From the summary:

Past rewards influence how humans (and other animals) make decisions. We’ve known about that for a long time, said Serences – through day-to-day experience as well as the numerous experiments of economists and cognitive psychologists. Though more and more research is looking into it, little is known about how rewards affect the way the brain processes incoming sensory information, specifically as it relates to vision. Could it be that we see things differently if they have paid off before?

Serences examined how value affects visual processing with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a brain-scanning technique that indirectly measures neural activity. The brain activity of subjects was recorded as they chose between red and green targets that varied in value across the experiment. Selecting a target might yield 10 cents or nothing, potentially earning subjects making the “right” choices 10 dollars. The fMRI scans were conducted at UC Irvine.

Analysis revealed that rewards altered neural activation in many areas of the human visual system, including the very first visually responsive region of the brain, the area of the cortex known as “V1,” which is associated with representing basic features such as edge orientations and color.

“When a target had been valuable in the past – if selecting it had had paid off with money– the visual system represented it more strongly,” Serences said. “Rewards affected information processing not just at a high level of cognitive function but right from the get-go.”

“Though it is too early to say how this relates to perception,” said Serences, “it raises the intriguing possibility that we see things we value more clearly – much like the way the brain responds to a bright object versus a dimly lit one.”

As we slip off our shades, we might wish a grateful Happy Birthday to Isaac Asimov, the extraordinarily-prolific author/editor; he was born on this date in 1920.  An acknowledged master of science fiction and popular science, Asimov wrote or edited over 500 books, thousands of short stories/essays/articles (and an estimated 9000 letters/postcards); his works were published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System– the sole exception being (ironically, given the content of so much of his fiction,  the 100s: “philosophy and psychology.”

Isaac Asimov

Written by LW

January 2, 2009 at 1:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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