Animals help Scottish scientists reveal how our brains form first impressions

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A Scottish study of how people can quickly spot animals by sight is helping uncover the workings of the human brain.

Scientists examined why volunteers who were shown hundreds of pictures – some with animals and some without – were able to detect animals in as little as one-tenth of a second.

 

As Chinese New Year approaches this weekend staff at Edinburgh Zoo, home to two rare Sumatran tigers, are celebrating the Year of the Tiger with lots of themed events this weekend (13-14 February).. .The Zoo's two-year old sibling tigers, Tibor and Chandra, provide a focus for a range of events which will reflect traditional celebrations as well as involve animals originally native to China. There will be interactive displays with information about China and its culture, a touch table where you can learn all about tigers, and activities including making some Chinese art and collecting Chinese stamps
Volunteers who were shown hundreds of pictures were able to detect animals in as little as one-tenth of a second

 

They found that one of the first parts of the brain to process visual information – the primary visual cortex – can control this fast response, rather than more complex parts of the brain being required, as previously thought.

The findings suggest that when people look at a scene for the first time, the brain’s immediate responses can categorise it based on small areas of shape and texture.

Other parts of the brain then use more complex processing, which takes longer, to work out the objects being seen.

 

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Images with animals, which have more curved edges and textures compared to images of outdoor scenes, which have longer, straighter edges

 

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Aix Marseille Université used data from previous studies in which volunteers looked at hundreds of images.

They ran computer programmes to mimic and analyse the processing of the primary visual cortex as the images were viewed.

They showed that the programme could quickly distinguish images with animals, which have more curved edges and textures, from images of outdoor scenes, which have longer, straighter edges on average.

 

PICS PETER GODDARD / DEADLINE ..DOLLY THE SHEEP, THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS SHEEP IS A KEY FIXTURE IN THE SCIENCE ZONE,  PART OF THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE FESTIVAL 2003..DOLLY WAS PUT DOWN AT THE ROSLIN INSTITUTE AFTER SHE WAS FOUND TO HAVE A LUNG TUMOUR...SHE IS SEEN HERE WITH PROFESSOR IAN WILMUT, LEADER OF THE ROSLIN TEAM WHO CLONED DOLLY
When people look at a scene for the first time, the brain’s immediate responses can categorise it based on small areas of shape and texture

 

The discovery could help inform the development of image-based internet search engines, by enabling computer programmes to classify images according to their geometry.

It was previously thought that complex parts of the brain were required for analysing images, with categories – such as animals – only being detectable at a late stage in the process.

 

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The reserach carried out at Edinburgh University could help inform the development of image-based internet search engines (Image by Laurence Winram)

 

Dr James Bednar, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, who took part in the research, said: “These results have far-reaching implications for explaining our sensory experience.

“They show that whenever we open our eyes, enter a room, or go around a corner we can quickly get the gist of a scene, well before figuring out exactly what we are looking at.”

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