When the brain makes a scene

New research tracks how much the brain really sees when it takes in a view


It’s the peripheral ocular conundrum: if something is outside a person’s fovea, can they be trusted to see it?

Many brain researchers would say no, but Massachusetts Institute of Technology postdoc fellow, Dr Michael Cohen, believes the answer is closer to yes – if we are looking at a scene like a park or a shop.

He told OT that the brain appears to be hardwired to quickly take in a scene, adding: “There are a few regions in the visual cortex that respond selectively or preferentially to scenes – the parahippocampal place area, the retrosplenial cortex, and the occipital place area.

“These are regions that get highly active when a person is looking at a scene, but get substantially less active when looking at pictures of objects, faces or animals,” he said.

Yet even when the brain might want to take in the whole view in front of its eyes in a short amount of time, there was no getting around the dominance of the fovea, Dr Cohen explained.

He added: “The fovea gets the most ‘cortical real-estate’ in the sense that a disproportionate amount of the visual system is involved in representing the fovea compared to the periphery.

“So since only so many neural resources are available for representing the periphery, it seems like the visual system represents the periphery as a summary statistic so we can still have a sense of the world around us, that is, the gist of a scene,” he explained.

The brain’s reflection of the ‘gist’ of a scene is highlighted in Dr Cohen’s opinion piece published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science today (19 April).

Dr Cohen said such findings about the limits of our perception can be uncomfortable for people to come to terms with.

It had affected his own mindset, he said, adding: “This type of research has just forced me to be more critical when thinking about my own reflection. It’s so easy to overestimate the richness of perception and think that you see everything that is in front of you.”