Researchers find that the brain can assign value to an object in less than a tenth of a second

February 9, 2018, Johns Hopkins University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Johns Hopkins neuroscientists have discovered how the brain can determine an object's value almost as soon as we see it.

The team found the can begin processing value just 80 milliseconds after seeing something. That's less than a tenth of a second—and means the brain is basically figuring out if something is quality or junk at the same time it recognizes what it is.

Having watched his wife shop, Ed Connor, the senior author of the research and director of the university's Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, can appreciate the speed of value judgments.

"She's flipping through the racks at Anthropologie at like two items per second and there's an instant no, no, no, maybe, yes—try this on," he says. "It's an example of how all through life, we see things and attach value to them very quickly. With this study, we've answered how at the brain level this can be so fast and even automatic."

The findings are published online today in Current Biology.

"At the same time we know it's a car, we know it's a cheap car, or a , or an old car," Connor said. "That has to rely on automatic and immediate value processing by the visual system."

Past research has shown that value representation is strongly associated with later responses in the . The new findings show that value processing can begin in the visual , before any value signals appear in the prefrontal cortex. The visual cortex is well equipped to discriminate the fine details in appearance that underlie value judgments about natural objects, Connor said.

The researchers trained monkeys to recognize four different letters. Each letter varied, as if seen in slightly different fonts. The exact shape indicated how much of a liquid treat the monkey would get. The monkeys became experts at choosing the more valuable of two letters in order to get a larger reward. Neural response measurements during this task revealed the rapid emergence of value-related signals in the .

As in the laboratory task, people become experts at perceiving fine variations that signify speed in a sports car, value in a luxury car, or high fashion in a dress or suit, Connor said. Knowing the value of cars and clothing may seem artificial, but for evolutionary purposes, Connor says being able to evaluate objects can be just as important as recognizing them.

For instance, if we meet a dog, we need to know right away if it's a friendly dog, or a dangerous one, he says. Or when we meet people, it's important to know if they're male or female, old or young, hostile or friendly.

"Recognizing objects isn't the whole story of vision," Connor says. "We need to instantly evaluate and understand things in the world to form fast, appropriate behavioral responses. Seconds count when competing for food or evading predators."

Explore further: Scientists find brain cells that know which end is up

Related Stories

Scientists find brain cells that know which end is up

March 8, 2016
People are intuitive physicists, knowing from birth how objects under the influence of gravity are likely to fall, topple or roll. In a new study, scientists have found the brain cells apparently responsible for this innate ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

The mysterious case of the boy missing most of his visual cortex who can see anyway

December 8, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with Monash University recently gave a presentation at a neuroscience conference in Australia outlining their study of the brain of a seven-year-old boy who was missing most of his ...

An innovative model for the study of vision

April 11, 2017
A new study shows for the first time that the progressive processing of the visual signal underlying human object recognition is similarly implemented in the rat brain, thus extending the range of experimental techniques, ...

'Mind's eye blink' proves 'paying attention' is not just a figure of speech

November 27, 2017
When your attention shifts from one place to another, your brain blinks. The blinks are momentary unconscious gaps in visual perception and came as a surprise to the team of Vanderbilt psychologists who discovered the phenomenon ...

Recommended for you

Researchers unravel why people with HIV suffer from more neurologic diseases

August 20, 2018
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which the HIV virus can cause, continue to be one of the world's greatest health problems.

Fluidically linked blood-brain barrier and Organ Chips offer new method for studying effects of drugs on the brain

August 20, 2018
The human brain, with its 100 billion neurons that control every thought, word, and action, is the most complex and delicate organ in the body. Because it needs extra protection from toxins and other harmful substances, the ...

Female mice are immune to cognitive damage from space radiation

August 20, 2018
Humankind still dreams of breaking from the bounds of Earth's atmosphere and venturing to the moon, Mars and beyond. But once astronauts blast past the International Space Station, they become exposed to one of the many dangers ...

Bilingual children who speak native language at home have higher intelligence

August 20, 2018
Children who regularly use their native language at home while growing up in a different country have higher IQs, a new study has shown.

Antidepressant restores youthful flexibility to aging inhibitory neurons in mice

August 20, 2018
A new study provides fresh evidence that the decline in the capacity of brain cells to change, called "plasticity," rather than a decline in total cell number may underlie some of the sensory and cognitive declines associated ...

Perinatal hypoxia associated with long-term cerebellar learning deficits and Purkinje cell misfiring

August 18, 2018
Oxygen deprivation associated with preterm birth leaves telltale signs on the brains of newborns in the form of alterations to cerebellar white matter at the cellular and the physiological levels. Now, an experimental model ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jayarava
not rated yet Feb 10, 2018
This smells of a university press release. It has become depressingly familiar to see scientists quoted as extrapolating from a single result in an animal trial to talking about how human brains definitely do something. Which is not only bad science, but bad science journalism.

It would be more accurate to say that some monkeys did a thing and their brains were active in particular ways. We may *hypothesise* that this means X for human beings, but, of course, we won't ever be testing the hypothesis in humans, because vivisection of humans is not allowed and that's what it would take to test the hypothesis.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.