Rewire the Neurons in Your Brain Just By Looking

Illustration for article titled Rewire the Neurons in Your Brain Just By Looking

Though science fiction tales like Clockwork Orange and Videodrome have toyed with the notion that images from television and movies could rewire people's brains, the idea has always been controversial and unsubstantiated. But now researchers have shown empirically that anything you look at, including movies, changes the the connections between neurons in your brain. In other words, what you see changes your brain at a neurological level. The good news is the parts of your brain devoted to vision can be rewired, which has positive implications for people blinded after strokes. The bad news is that what you see today could have a lasting effect on what you see tomorrow. A particularly powerful negative image might alter your perception of positive images later.

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According to a release:

In the study, [Valentin] Dragoi and co-author Diego Gutnisky, a graduate research assistant at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, measured the effects of visual stimulation on the responses of multiple neurons whose electrical activity was measured simultaneously in animals. They carefully examined the responses of a population of cells in visual cortex to dynamic stimuli, which consisted of movie sequences displayed on a video monitor.

"We provide empirical evidence that brief exposure, or adaptation, to a fixed stimulus causes pronounced changes in the degree of cooperation between individual neurons and an improvement in the efficiency with which the population of cells encodes information," Dragoi and Gutnisky report. "These results are consistent with the 'efficient coding hypothesis' - that is, sensory neurons are adapted to the statistical properties of the stimuli that they are exposed to and with changes in human discrimination performance after adaptation." . . .

While their study focused on how neuronal populations adapt to visual stimulation, the same could hold true for other senses - hearing, smell, taste and touch, Dragoi said. "We're trying to understand how a network of sensory neurons changes its encoding properties to properly represent the environment," he said. "Our results may have general implications for sensory and motor coding in a variety of brain areas."

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What's truly interesting about this study is that images from film seem to remold our brains as much as real-world ones. So if people watch a lot of violent movies, it's actually possible that the neural links formed as a result will influence what they see in reality. Note that this doesn't mean it would make people more violent — it might just make them perceive violence more readily, or might cause them to interpret things as being more violent than they are. Image via LinMercer.

First Empirical Study Demonstrating that Populations of Nerve Cells Adapt to Changing Images [Eurekalert]

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DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

The headline is a little misleading because it makes it seem like another one of those "science conclusively demonstrates the staggeringly obvious" bits of research. Which I don't think it is.

Of course visual stimuli rewires the brain. When a person concentrates to memorize a visual scene for later recall, they are rewiring their brain in a subtle and perhaps global way. Every vivid visual memory you have is the result of this rewiring process.

What these scientists have actually done is learn something very new about how the brain rewires itself from visual stimulus—something unexpected and provocative.