(Isabelle Z) It’s something that happens to many people every day: you walk outside of the subway tunnel, look around, and instantly realize right where you are and head on your way. As simple as it sounds in theory, the mechanisms underlying this nearly-automatic act are so complex that scientists have long struggled to understand them.
by Isabelle Z, October 5th, 2017
Now, researchers at Florida State University have gotten closer to uncovering how people make the transition from observing a scene and then turning that image into a plan for navigating their way toward their destination.
They found that the brain’s parietal cortex helps this process by integrating the information it takes from different senses and using it to inform the person which action to take. Other parts of the brain help this response be recorded in the form of a memory, creating a map of the location that the person can later recall to get where they need to go. This means that when the person sees that same view in the future, it links to the brain’s map and tells them which action they need to take.
Moreover, streams of sensory information are taken in by single cells in that part of the brain, which then cluster and work like a module to create the physical response. They simultaneously reconfigure themselves as the person learns and creates memories.
They discovered this by studying activity patterns in the brains of rats. When the animals performed certain series of actions, identical pattern sequences were noted. As the rats slept, the scientists found that their brains replayed those same actions while they were dreaming at a rate that was around four times faster than its speed in their waking hours.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Aaron Wilber, said: “We think these fast-forward ‘dreams’ we observe in rats could explain why in humans when you dream and wake up, you think a lot more time passed than actually has because your dreams happen at high speed or fast forward. Maybe dreams happen in fast forward because that would make it easier to create new connections in your brain as you sleep.”
These findings could help gain a new understanding of the way in which memory deteriorates in people with neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
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