When we reach for a coffee mug, does our brain have to recognize it as a cup in order for us to grasp it by the handle? Jody Culham, a researcher with the The University of Western Ontario’s Psychology Department, is investigating how the brain interprets visual information to guide our actions.
Dr. Culham’s particular area of interest is in sensorimotor control, or how visual information is interpreted by the brain to guide our actions. Her lab developed techniques to “bring the real world into the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner,” measuring brain activity during real actions upon real 3D objects, instead of the traditional approach that uses 2D pictures. Dr. Culham’s method has identified a variety of different areas that are involved in visually guided actions such as reaching, grasping and tool use.
Recently, Dr. Culham succeeded in differentiating the individual human visual areas that comprise the network found in the dorsal stream, the area of the brain that evaluates visuals for location and motor control. By performing functional MRI scans on neurological patients who had lost the effective use of the ventral stream, the stream of visual processing responsible for object recognition, Dr. Culham demonstrated that the dorsal stream contains some autonomous functions.
Dr. Culham’s research suggests that the visual control of actions, such as grasping a coffee mug, can function independently from visual perception, such as recognizing one’s own coffee mug. Her experiments help to explain the surprising behavior of some neurological patients, such as those who can accurately grasp objects that they are unable to recognize. In addition, this work may contribute to the development of brain-machine interfaces, enabling neural implants to guide movements of an artificial robotic arm to real world objects.