Associate professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Michael Weliky is working to dispel the old myth that we only use 10 percent of our brain’s capacity. Through analyzing the neural activity in the brains of infant and adult ferrets, Weliky discovered that the ability to comprehend visual images may evolve through growth and therefore is very different between adults and infants. These findings were published in the journal “Nature” this week, which claimed that this research may have a profound impact on present views of reality and our perception.Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Weliky worked with Josef Fizer and Chiayu Chiu for over a year, evaluating electroencephalogram activity in ferrets. Initially, their goal was to understand the neural activity of ferrets in a dark room, but they later modified it to question the ferrets’ brains while they watched movies. Appropriately enough, the movie chosen was “The Matrix.””The EEG measures hundreds of thousands of neurons,” Weliky said. “The brain has different rhythms which oscillate up and down. We looked at the organization of activity patterns in the ferrets.”They found that the infant brain couldn’t distinguish between watching static on TV versus watching Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.” When there are actors moving across a screen, the images move across the viewer’s visual realm like real objects. Static, on the other hand, does not. When watching these different actions on the screen, adult ferrets could differentiate between the two, but infant ferrets could not.The adult brain has a high structure of brain activity that helps it discriminate between various objects while infants cannot. This proves that the additional perception is not necessary for survival, which leaves researchers speculating about its responsibility.”Activity in the infant brain is not very well suited for interpreting the environment or detecting objects and scenes,” Weliky said. “Since ferrets and humans are both mammals with somewhat similar brain structure, we can assume that these findings would be similar in humans.”Weliky was also surprised by the fact that when adult ferrets were in a dark room, their brains were still humming along at 80 percent, as if they were still processing visual information. The researchers wondered what the visual cortex was processing, especially since the infants showed nothing.”In adults, there is a tremendous amount of real-world processing going on – 80 percent – when there is nothing to process,” Weliky said in a press release. “We think that if you’ve got your eyes closed, your visual processing is pretty much at zero, and that when you open them, you’re running at 100 percent. [But] this suggests that with your eyes closed, your visual processing is already running at 80 percent, and that opening your eyes only adds the last 20 percent. The big question here is – what is the brain doing when it’s idling.”Weliky chose to show the ferrets “The Matrix” partly because he liked the movie. “Part of what we try to address are philosophical issues as well – what is the nature of reality? What is real and what is created by the brain?” he said.”The basic findings are exciting enough, but you can’t help but speculate on what they might mean in a deeper context,” Weliky said in a press release. “It’s one thing to say a ferret’s understanding of reality is being reproduced inside his brain, but there’s nothing to say that our understanding of the world is accurate.”Continuing, he said, “In a way, our neural structure imposes a certain structure on the outside world, and all we know is that at least one other mammalian brain seems to impose the same structure. Either that or ‘The Matrix’ freaked out the ferrets the way it did everyone else.”Paret can be reached at email@example.com.
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