How can we instantly process what our eyes see while simultaneously translating that into actions for our body parts? It’s all part of a detailed “highway” of information entirely unique to our brains. At least, that’s what the latest research suggests.
Studies conducted by researchers at University College London and Cambridge University found evidence of a “specialized mechanism” inside our brains that combines what we see (our visual cues) with what we actually do (our bodily motion). As the study showed, humans have developed a system that helps us visually keep track of our bodies even if we’re not entirely conscious of the actions we’re performing. This allows us to use less effort in our visual processing since we don’t have to filter out what we need versus what we don’t need.
In a way, you can think of the system — or the “highway,” whatever you’d like to call it — as a bit of a reflex. Data shows that the action can be taken before our conscious brains even have time to process it, meaning we might not even be aware we’re taking the action while we’re doing it. Humans haven’t always had this ability, either, which suggests it resulted from some kind of evolution over time.
These conclusions were reached after a series of experiments at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Participants were given control of two cursors, one with each hand, and had to react to changes they viewed on a computer monitor in front of them. As the study’s lead author, Dr. Alexandra Reichenbach, reported, “The first experiment showed us that we react very quickly to changes relating to objects directly under our own control, even when we are not paying attention to them.”
What makes this finding even more remarkable is that the human retina doesn’t see images continuously, but rather one after the next. However, the retina sends signals to the brain at such fast speeds that it appears to all be one seamless, smooth image.
“The Snellen chart, which is a standard chart that is used to measure visual acuity, was developed in 1862, and we’re still using it today,” explains Dr. Sophia Barnes, Optometrist and Primary Care Physician at Vision Corner. “The way that we have been doing things is outdated. With this information, we could possibly revolutionize and develop new ways to test, diagnose and treat eye problems and eye diseases.”
In a larger medical context, a finding like this could be useful in gaining a better grasp of why certain schizophrenic patients feel as if they’re not in complete control of their actions. Additionally, the idea of this “highway” might help explain why some patients with prosthetic limbs never feel fully integrated with their new devices. Until then, more research is likely necessary, but this discovery has led the way to opening up new doors in the future.