ANI Photo | Researchers give more insight into how brain creates conscious perception

A new study on visual masking gave more insights and suggests how conscious perception is created in the brain.
The research results were published in Nature Neuroscience.
When two images are displayed quickly after one another, people do not consciously recognise one of them; this is a phenomena called visual masking. But the timing of those pictures is really important. The first image needs to flash quickly on and off in order for the masking to work, and the second image needs to follow quickly (around 50 milliseconds).
Scientists at the Allen Institute Shawn Olsen, Ph.D., and his associates investigated the science underlying this visual illusion and shown for the first time that it also occurs in mice. Researchers were also able to identify a specific area of the brain that is required for the visual masking illusion to function after teaching mice to record what they observed.
“This is an interesting observation, where what is present in the world is not accurately reflected in your perception,” said Olsen. “Like other visual illusions, we think that it tells us something about the way the visual system works and ultimately about the neural circuits that underlie visual awareness.”
Scientists discovered this strange phenomenon in the 19th century, but why and how the human brain does this remains a mystery.
The study narrows down the parts of the brain responsible for awareness of the world around us, said Christof Koch, Ph.D., a meritorious investigator at the Allen Institute, who led the study along with Olsen and Sam Gale, Ph.D., a scientist at the Allen Institute.
When the rain of photons impinges on our retinas, the information takes a prescribed path from our eyeballs through several different regions of the brain, ending in higher processing areas of the cortex, the wrinkled outermost shell of the brain. From previous studies of visual masking, scientists know that neurons in the retina and parts of the brain early in that pathway are activated even when a person is not aware that they’re seeing an image. In other words, your brain is seeing things without your knowledge.
To explore where unconscious sensation turns into conscious perception and action, the scientists first trained 16 mice to turn a tiny LEGO wheel toward the direction of a quickly flashed image in exchange for a treat if they chose the correct direction. The scientists then added a different masking image on both sides of the screen, directly following the target image. With the addition of the mask, the animals could no longer do the task correctly–implying they were no longer aware of the original, target image.
Because visual masking had never been tested in mice before, the research team had to create the task for them, meaning the images and how they were shown differed from those used in previous human studies. To confirm that the optical illusion they showed the rodents is relevant to us, the team also tested it in 16 people (the wheel replaced by keystroke). Human perception (or lack thereof) and mouse perception of this specific visual masking illusion turned out to be very similar.
That result means that conscious perception is happening either in the visual cortex or in higher areas of the cortex downstream of it. That fits with the general sentiment in the field that the cortex is the seat of conscious perception in mammals, including us, Koch said. (ANI)

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