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Neuroscientists find famous optical illusion surprisingly potent

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Published: 29 Jun 2011

Scientists have come up with new insight into the brain processes that causes a certain optical illusion.

Scientists have come up with new insight into the brain processes that cause a certain optical illusion. In this video illustrating an example of the illusion, the yellow wasp appears to be expanding. But he is not. He is staying still. We simply think he is growing because our brains have adapted to the inward motion of the background and that has become our new status quo. Similar situations arise constantly in our day-to-day lives – jump off a moving treadmill and everything around you seems to be in motion for a moment.

This age-old illusion, first documented by Aristotle, is called the Motion Aftereffect by today's scientists. Why does it happen, though? Is it because we are consciously aware that the background is moving in one direction, causing our brains to shift their frame of reference so that we can ignore this motion? Or is it an automatic, subconscious response?

Researchers at the University of Rochester's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, doctoral student Davis Glasser and Professor Duje Tadin, think they may have found the answer in a new study done in collaboration with colleagues at The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, doctoral student James Tsui and neuroscientist Dr. Christopher Pack. The study will be published this week in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

In their paper, the scientists show that humans experience the Motion Aftereffect even if the motion that they see in the background is so brief that they can't even tell whether it is heading to the right or the left.

Even when shown a video of a backdrop that is moving for only 1/40 of a second (25 milliseconds) – so short that the direction it is moving cannot be consciously distinguished – a subject's brain automatically adjusts. If the subject is then shown a stationary object, it will appear to him as though it is moving in the opposite direction of the background motion. In recordings from a motion center in the brain called cortical area MT, the researchers found neurons that, following a brief exposure to motion, respond to stationary objects as if they are actually moving. It is these neurons that the researchers think are responsible for the illusory motion of stationary objects that people see during the Motion Aftereffect.

This discovery reveals that the Motion Aftereffect illusion is not just a compelling visual oddity: It is caused by neural processes that happen essentially every time we see moving objects. The next phase of the group's study will attempt to find out whether this rapid motion adaptation serves a beneficial purpose – in other words, does this rapid adaptation actually improve your ability to estimate the speed and direction of relevant moving objects, such as a baseball flying toward you.

About the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital

The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro, is a unique academic medical centre dedicated to neuroscience. The Neuro is a research and teaching institute of McGill University and forms the basis for the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. Founded in 1934 by the renowned Dr. Wilder Penfield, The Neuro is recognized internationally for integrating research, compassionate patient care and advanced training, all key to advances in science and medicine. Neuro researchers are world leaders in cellular and molecular neuroscience, brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience and the study and treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and neuromuscular disorders. The Montreal Neurological Institute was named as one of the Seven Centres of Excellence in Budget 2007, which provided the MNI with $15 million in funding to support its research and commercialization activities related to neurological disease and neuroscience.

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