Research confirms a brain region that identifies walls

Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University

A team of neuroscientists from the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University and Aalto University in Finland have discovered an area of human brain which perceives sense of surroundings. This area of the human brain is dedicated to the geometry of our surrounding and is conscious of our navigable space, which includes understanding of walls, ceiling, and other barriers around us. The team suggests that this brain region is able to encode spatial constraints of scene at lightning-fast speed, thus contributing to instant sense of surrounding. This sense allows us to avoid running into, or bumping into things, and help us to navigate safely within our environment.

The research provides deep insights into the complex computations of our brains. The study is considered beneficial in the development of Artificial Intelligence technology which aims to mimic visual powers of the human brain.

“Vision gives us an almost instant sense where we are in space, and in particular of the geometry of the surfaces — the ground, the walls — which constrain our movement. It feels effortless, but it requires the coordinated activity of multiple brain regions,” said a research spokesperson at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and the paper’s senior author. “How neurons work together to give us this sense of our surroundings has remained mysterious. With this study, we are a step closer to solving that puzzle.”

The team conducted the research with the help of volunteers who were asked to look at images of different three-dimensional scenes. The images depicted a room with three walls, ceiling and a floor. In order to monitor the brain activity of the participants, the team changed the scene by removing the wall or the ceiling. By doing this, the team could comprehend how the participant’s brain encoded every scene.  The scientists reported that the human visual system follows a hierarchy of stages. In the first step, the retina detects simple visual features. And in the subsequent stages the brain detects more complex shapes. It is via the procession of these visual signals that the human brain is able to form a complete picture of the world, in all its colors, textures and shapes.

This research is published in the scientific journal Neuron.