Learning and memory
The mind’s eye
Vision is our most crucial sense. We relyon it for survival but just how reliable is it?
It is tempting to think of our eyes as mini-camerasconstantly ﬁlming the outside world. In fact, vision isnothing like that. The seamless view of the world isan illusion created by the brain after it has dismantledthe input it receives from the eyes.For a start, we do not look at a scene in a steadyway. Instead, our eyes constantly ﬂicker back andforth (involuntary movements known as
),scanning scenes in detail. From this constantlyshifting input, the brain builds up a coherent mentalpicture corresponding to a scene.We now know that neurons in our brain specialisein recognising particular aspects of a scene, suchas edges or dots or motion. Each neuron has a‘
’, an area around it that is sensitiveto its favoured stimulus (like a detector attached toa security light, which can detect movement withina particular area of ground). Then, in a computational task of staggeringcomplexity, the brain integrates all these signals tocreate a visual impression of the outside world.
Another key difference between the visual systemand a camera is the phenomenon of
. There is so much going on in the world that the brainhas to ﬁlter out unnecessary input. One way it doesthis is by focusing on (or ‘
’) to a small areaat any one time.We are not very aware of this, partly because ourperipheral vision is sensitive to movement, so if something noteworthy happens there we are quick tonotice. But it means we take in much less of a scenethan we might imagine. A nice example is a study in which volunteers wereasked to watch a videotape of people playingbasketball. They were asked to count the passesmade by one of the teams. Afterwards they wereasked if they had noticed anything unusual.Fixated on counting, almost half failed to spot a womandressed in a gorilla suit who stopped to face thecamera, banged her chest and walked off.
The other big difference between the brain and acamera is that the brain guesses more. Whenpresented with incomplete information, it ﬁlls in thegaps, making assumptions about what should bethere given the rest of the visual input it is receiving. This
can be useful. The visual system isoften trying to extract patterns. So when it ﬁnds onebut with a bit missing, it ﬁlls in the missing space, sowe get a complete coherent picture. But it sometimesleaps to the wrong conclusion. Can we believe oureyes? Not always.
Optical quirk – www.ophtasurf.com/en/bestillusions5.htm
This optical illusion illustrates how our perception can be tricked –in this case into believing something is moving. Optical illusionshave told us much about how the brain interpretsscenes, for more details (and illusions) see...
ON T HE W E B
The brain structures, neuronsand even molecules and genesassociated with memory arebeginning to be identiﬁed.
We are in many ways the sum of ourexperiences. How we act and behavedepends not just on what is happeningto us now but also on what hashappened to us in the past. We learnand we can make memories.Nearly all animals can learn. A simpleform of learning is
– somekind of sensory stimulus is ‘remembered’and an animal’s behaviour changes thenext time it encounters that stimulus. The classic example is provided by
, who were given foodevery time a bell rang. Eventually, theybegan to salivate in response to thebell on its own.Human memory is more complex –in fact, we have several different typesof memory, involving many parts of the brain (see box, below left).
But what exactly does a ‘memory’look like in the brain? Again, it isdifﬁcult to liken it to anything everydaysuch as a photograph in an album.Memories are hard to pin down, asthey involve a constellation of neuronsconnecting together in different patterns.Putting away the memory of Christmasday is produced by millions of neuralbrain patterns ﬁring: some for thetaste of Brussels sprouts, others fora favourite carol. The pattern remainsafter the stimulus disappears and amemory is born.In terms of mechanisms, memory makingis thought to depend on neuronsstrengthening their connections to oneanother – ‘remembering’ that they havebeen in touch before (see ﬁgure above).
Some people with brain damage,or by a quirk of fate, lack a veryspeciﬁc mental function.
Remarkably, some patients haveno conscious vision but can stillpoint at a coloured dot on a screenwhen forced to guess.This suggeststhat we can ‘see’ things withoutbeing consciously aware of them.
Some people don’t just hear sounds– they see them too (see page 12).
are unable to recognise
,suggesting that there is a ‘module’in the brain speciﬁcally dealingwith face recognition.
When a nerve impulse (green) arrives at the endof a neuron, neurotransmitters ferry the signalacross the synapse (pink), setting off a newaction potential (blue). Signals are also sentback to the original neuron (yellow, top) so thatthe next time a nerve impulse arrives (bottom)the second neuron reads more strongly.
A k i y o s h i K i t a ok a www.r i t s um e i . a c . j p / ~ a k i t a ok a / i n d e x - e .h t ml