Our Brains Are Hyper-Visual, So Too Our Culture and Tech

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Below is a digest of a longer article on some findings in research on our visual systems, and other animals systems.  Western culture seems accelerating towards pretty much exclusively visual stimuli, adopting to our brain’s hyper-visual receptivity and processing speed.  This is largely from the research of Irving Beiderman at USC

Take Aways:

  • In about a tenth of a second—too quickly for us to even be aware it’s happening—our brains figure out what we are seeing and make sense of it

  • half of our brain is dedicated almost exclusively to vision.

  • Seeing an odd or unexpected interaction between two objects stimulates our brains to release more opioids, thus giving us increased enjoyment.”

  • “Because the concepts are remote, their linking will necessarily result in the activation of a great number of intervening neurons with a concomitant and sudden deluge of opioid activity, causing us to laugh

  • We get more opioid release and thus more pleasure from looking at those shapes….Our eye movements are not random but… they are directed towards entities that will give us more opioid activity—a system that is established as early as four months.”

[The quick visual system] “It’s the miracle of pattern recognition..People can be misled into thinking it’s a very easy, simple process because it occurs so quickly and automatically..“Of course, we also get color, texture and movement, but most of what we understand and remember about what we see comes from shape…A line drawing of a scene tells us pretty much what we want to know.”

“The brain’s ability to decompose complex objects into simple shapes like cylinders, bricks, wedges and cones…It turns out that you can model most objects in terms of a very small vocabulary of these simple shapes, numbering about 30 or 40,”

Pleasure in Seeing Sumptin’ New
“Interestingly, opioid receptors, which convey nerve signals linked to pleasure, are dispersed in a gradient along the entire visual pathway, with few receptors in the early stages building to more and more in the later stages. This opioid fix explains the joy and appeal of new experiences…”

“We found that being able to recognize a scene that we specifically have never seen before gives us more opioid release—and thus more pleasure—than something we can’t recognize or that we’ve seen many times before,”

“When you have a new experience:
– initially many neurons are activated
– But once the experience is over, the neurons that were most strongly activated inhibit the neurons that were only weakly or moderately activated by that experience.
– The next time you have the same experience, you get less opioid release.
– This explains why we seek out new experiences.

“Don’t feel sorry for the inhibited neurons, though. They are now freed up to code different experiences. It’s a reflection of the brain’s extraordinary capacity to divvy up its own neural connections, leaving only a minimal number of neurons to code prior experiences and having lots of neurons in reserve to code new experiences.”

Seeing an odd or unexpected interaction between two objects stimulates our brains to release more opioids, thus giving us increased enjoyment.”

Laughter from Recognition of the Unexpected Is Universal
“In contrast, visual art may be able to give us the new experience we crave, but it can be debatable whether a certain work of abstract art is creative,” he said. On the other hand, there is no debate when humor is successful, as the end result—laughter—is pretty much universal.

“The caption to the cartoon, to be funny, cannot be obvious but has to link remote concepts that resolve the incongruity in the drawing,” he said. “Because the concepts are remote, their linking will necessarily result in the activation of a great number of intervening neurons with a concomitant and sudden deluge of opioid activity, causing us to laugh. But once we’ve seen the cartoon and we’ve got the joke, the inhibition of the weakly activated cells by the strongly activated cells reduces the amount of opioid release and thus the pleasure is diminished.”

Craving New information
Biederman says this desire for new but interpretable information is a system that makes us “infovores”—eager consumers of information.

“That greater activity means we get more opioid release and thus more pleasure from looking at those shapes….Our eye movements are not random but…they are directed towards entities that will give us more opioid activity—a system that is established as early as four months.”

…training actually changes the way the brain works, improving visual processing in the primary visual cortex, the starting point for visual processing in the brain.

“There are just a few really great mysteries in the world,” Biederman said. “There is cosmology and dark matter, and then there is higher-level vision and the brain. And we have come a long way in explaining how we make sense of what we see, this extraordinary achievement of the brain that had never been understood before.”

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