Psychologists Use fMRI To Understand Ties Between Memories And The Imagination

ScienceDaily.com — Psychologists have found that thought patterns used to recall the past and imagine the future are strikingly similar. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the brain at work, they have observed the same regions activated in a similar pattern whenever a person remembers an event from the past or imagines himself in a future situation. This challenges long-standing beliefs that thoughts about the future develop exclusively in the frontal lobe.

Remembering your past may go hand-in-hand with envisioning your future! It’s an important link researchers found using high-tech brain scans. It’s answering questions and may one day help those with memory loss.

For some, the best hope of ‘seeing’ the future leads them to seek guidance — perhaps from an astrologist. But it’s not very scientific. Now, psychologists at Washington University are finding that your ability to envision the future does in fact goes hand-in-hand with remembering the past. Both processes spark similar neural activity in the brain.

“You might look at it as mental time travel–the ability to take thoughts about ourselves and project them either into the past or into the future,” says Kathleen McDermott, Ph.D. and Washington University psychology professor. The team used “functional magnetic resonance imaging” — or fMRI — to “see” brain activity. They asked college students to recall past events and then envision themselves experiencing such an event in their future. The results? Similar areas of the brain “lit up” in both scenarios.

“We’re taking these images from our memories and projecting them into novel future scenarios,” says psychology professor Karl Szpunar.

Most scientists believed thinking about the future was a process occurring solely in the brain’s frontal lobe. But the fMRI data showed a variety of brain areas were activated when subjects dreamt of the future.

“All the regions that we know are important for memory are just as important when we imagine our future,” Szpunar says.

Researchers say besides furthering their understanding of the brain — the findings may help research into amnesia, a curious psychiatric phenomenon. In addition to not being able to remember the past, most people who suffer from amnesia cannot envision or visualize what they’ll be doing in the future — even the next day.

BACKGROUND: Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have used advanced brain imaging techniques to show that remembering the past and envisioning the future may go hand-in-hand, with each process showing strikingly similar patterns of activity within precisely the same broad network of brain regions. This suggests that envisioning the future may be a critical prerequisite for many higher-level planning processes in the brain.

WHAT IS fMRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field rather than X-rays to take clear and detailed pictures of internal organs and tissues. fMRI uses this technology to identify regions of the brain where blood vessels are expanding, chemical changes are taking place, or extra oxygen is being delivered. These are indications that a particular part of the brain is processing information and giving commands to the body. As a patient performs a particular task, the metabolism will increase in the brain area responsible for that task, changing the signal in the MRI image. So by performing specific tasks that correspond to different functions, scientists can locate the part of the brain that governs that function.

ABOUT THE STUDY: The researchers relied on fMRI to capture patterns of brain activation as college students were given 10 seconds to develop a vivid mental image of themselves or a famous celebrity participating in a range of common life experiences. Presented with a series of memory cues — such as getting lost, spending time with a friend, or attending a birthday party — participants were asked to recall a related event from their own past; to envision themselves experiencing such an event in their future life; or to picture a famous celebrity (specifically, former U.S. president Bill Clinton) participating in such an event.

WHAT THEY FOUND: Comparing images of brain activity in response to the ‘self-remember’ and ‘self future’ event cues, researchers found a surprisingly complete overlap among regions of the brain used for remembering the past and those used for envisioning the future. The study clearly demonstrates that the neural network underlying future thoughts is not only happening in the brain’s frontal cortex. Although the frontal lobes play an important role in carrying out future-oriented operations — such as anticipation, planning and monitoring — the spark for these activities may be the process of envisioning yourself in a specific future event. And that’s an activity based on the same brain network used to remember memories about our own lives. Also, patterns of activity suggest that the visual and spatial context for our imagined future is often pieced together using our past experiences, including memories of specific body movements: data our brain has stored as we navigated through similar settings in the past.


ScienceDaily (Oct/Nov 2008) — A team of Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists has discovered patterns of brain activity that may underlie our remarkable ability to see and understand the three-dimensional structure of objects.

Computers can beat us at math and chess, but humans are the experts at object vision. (That’s why some Web sites use object recognition tasks as part of their authentication of human users.) It seems trivial to us to describe a teapot as having a C-shaped handle on one side, an S-shaped spout on the other and a disk-shaped lid on top. But sifting this three-dimensional information from the constantly changing, two-dimensional images coming in through our eyes is one of the most difficult tasks the brain performs. Even sophisticated computer vision systems have never been able to accomplish the same feat using two-dimensional camera images.

The Johns Hopkins research suggests that higher-level visual regions of the brain represent objects as spatial configurations of surface fragments, something like a structural drawing. Individual neurons are tuned to respond to surface fragment substructures. For instance, one neuron from the study responded to the combination of a forward-facing ridge near the front and an upward-facing concavity near the top. Multiple neurons with different tuning sensitivities could combine like a three-dimensional mosaic to encode the entire object surface.

“Human beings are keenly aware of object structure, and that may be due to this clear structural representation in the brain,” explains Charles E. Connor, associate professor in the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute at The Johns Hopkins University.

In the study, Connor and a postdoctoral fellow, Yukako Yamane, trained two rhesus monkeys to look at a computer monitor while 3-D pictures of objects were flashed on the screen. At the same time, the researchers recorded electrical responses of individual neurons in higher-level visual regions of the brain. A computer algorithm was used to guide the experiment gradually toward object shapes that evoked stronger responses.

This evolutionary stimulus strategy let the experimenters pinpoint the exact 3-D shape information that drove a given cell to respond.

These findings and other research on object coding in the brain have implications for treating patients with perceptual disorders. In addition, they could inform new approaches to computer vision. Connor also believes that understanding neural codes could help explain why visual experience feels the way it does, perhaps even why some things seem beautiful and others displeasing.

“In a sense, artists are neuroscientists, experimenting with shape and color, trying to evoke unique, powerful responses from the visual brain,” Connor said.

As a first step toward this neuroaesthetic question, the Connor laboratory plans to collaborate with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to study human responses to sculptural shape. Gary Vikan, the Walters’ director, is a strong believer in the power of neuroscience to inform the interpretation of art.

“My interest is in finding out what happens between a visitor’s brain and a work of art,” said Vikan. “Knowing what effect art has on patrons’ brains will contribute to techniques of display — lighting and color and arrangement — that will enhance their experiences when they come into the museum.”

The plan is to let museum patrons view a series of computer-generated 3-D shapes and rate them aesthetically. The same computer algorithm will be used to guide evolution of these shapes; in this case, based on aesthetic preference.

If this experiment can identify artistically powerful structural motifs, the next step would be to study how those motifs are represented at the neural level.

“Some researchers speculate that evolution determines what kinds of shapes and such our brains find pleasing,” Vikan said. “In other words, perhaps we are hard-wired to prefer certain things. This collaboration with the Mind-Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins could help us begin to understand that in more depth.”

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Journal reference:

1. Yamane et al. A neural code for three-dimensional object shape in macaque inferotemporal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 2008; DOI: 10.1038/nn.2202

Adapted from materials provided by Johns Hopkins University


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has captured the popular imagination since its introduction in the early 1990s, at least partially because of the stunningly beautiful images it generates. Although it has mostly used to identify brain regions involved in specific cognitive operations, new pattern classification techniques have been applied to fMRI data in what some have called “mind reading technology.” These techniques go beyond simply showing which brain areas are more active than others during a particular task to reveal functional relationships among multiple brain areas, while simultaneously avoiding both the spatial averaging and the low signal-to-noise ratios of traditional MRI methods. Exaggerations and speculations followed this development, including some frighteningly premature attempts at using this in the Indian justice system (and recent indications that parts of the US judicial system may be interested as well).

Although some of this fanfare is well deserved, these new techniques have at least one large shortcoming from a cognitive neuroscience perspective: we cannot know which of the spatial patterns of neural activity are intrinsically related to a certain task, and which are “epiphenomenal.” That is, some of the differentiating characteristics used by these algorithms might be merely correlational, and might fall apart if the methods were applied to a wider group of individuals or to stimuli with different characteristics.

Williams, Dang & Kanwisher addressed this concern by integrating information from correct and incorrect trials in a simple task. Typically, only correct trials are used in fMRI studies, due to the common assumption that there’s only one right way to do a task, and many wrong ways (thus, analyzing incorrect trials might statistically clutter the processes involved in good task performance). But Williams et al. reversed this logic: if pattern classification of fMRI is to focus on the real “meaningful” spatial patterns of neural activity, those extracted patterns should be precisely those which are most related to good task performance.

6A8CA183-B453-4072-9107-7C2F33A5DC82.jpgWilliams et al. had 6 subjects categorize abstract shapes as belonging to one of three categories – spikies, smoothies and cubies (see inset image) – while inside an fMRI scanner. The authors isolated two different brain “areas of interest” as sensitive to the differences between these categories, and subtracted the correlation between categories within a single area from that within categories in a single area, and compared this between incorrect and correct trials. This calculation basically indicates whether the activity patterns correlated due to category membership are also related to task performance. In both areas of interest (lateral occipital cortex and retinotopic occipital cortex) activity was more highly correlated within than between categories, but this correlation was stronger for correct classifications only in the lateral occipital cortex.

In other words, while retinotopic occipital cortex appears to represent information that can be used by a computer algorithm to discriminate these categories of items, only “downstream” activity in the lateral areas actually correlates with performance. So although the information needed to discriminate “spikies” from “smoothies” exists in multiple parts of the brain, only some of that appears to be used in overt responding. Indeed, even when retinotopic cortex contains patterns which are reliably related to the correct answer, subjects did not appear to use this information in their judgment!

One might say that these informative representations exist at a sub- or unconscious level, since they are not used in providing a response. Williams et al preferred more subtle language: they claim that “only some spatial patterns of fMRI response are read out in task performance.” Still, the underlying claim is the same: the brain contains this information but is apparently not utilizing it in cognition.


Image by Duff Hendrickson, U.W., Copyright Hunter Hoffman, U.W.

By John M. Grohol Psy.D — They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And there’s a good reason we humans find an image so compelling — most of the information we gather about the world around is done visually, through our eyes.

For instance, when you’re chatting with your best friend over coffee, up to 80% of that communication is done through nonverbal means — the way you smile when she says something funny, a gesture of your hands to emphasize your point. For better or worse, people are visually-oriented organisms.

So it’s no wonder that humans love research that comes with pretty pictures. And not just pretty pictures, but compelling pretty pictures that seem to illustrate a direct, causative relationship. Even if one doesn’t exist. Or other data exist that water down the pretty-picture study’s findings.

The problem is an age-old one and simple — a lot of psychological research is dry, boring stuff. You don’t have to look very far to see how boring it is. The American Psychological Association’s monthly journal is so boring, they rotate the artwork on its cover to try and imbue some excitement into its contents (as do many academic journals). Beyond the boring tables of data and occasional graph, the only other graphic in a typical issue is a smiling picture of the study’s authors. It’s no wonder much of this stuff never makes it to mainstream news stories.

Enter a possible solution — measuring stuff, or more specifically, “brain stuff.”

Of course researchers have been measuring brain stuff for decades via EEG, EDR, response times, and numerous other objective, data-based methods. Many of these even produce potentially-colorful graphs with little spikes that could almost be seen as interesting by a few psychologists.

But whoa, what’s this cool-looking picture of our brains at work? MRI?? No, not just an MRI, but a functional MRI! That means they are taking pictures of your brain while you do stuff.


The Basics of an fMRI

What does an fMRI actually measure? The fMRI indirectly measures the flow of oxygenated blood in the brain. That’s all. Not “activity of the brain” as it is often referred to in short-hand by journalists (and even some researchers). How is a typical fMRI study conducted?

Experiments using fMRI take about 1 to 2 hours per participant and each scan costs approximately $1500. Subjects lie down on a narrow plank, within a tube, and remain as still as possible. Even a millimeter of movement can ruin the data.
– Christie Nicholson

Researchers then correlate the flow of this oxygenated blood to some activity the person performs (yes, usually within the narrow confines of that tube!). Notice that annoying little “correlate” word in there too. Yes, correlate. None of these studies can show a causative link between a thought or behavior and a specific brain region.

The most well known shortcoming of fMRI is its slow timing. The blood flow response takes about two seconds, but a thought can happen in milliseconds. So it’s difficult to say that a rush of blood is associated with a specific activity in the brain.

Unfortunately a timing issue comes up again when researchers attempt to study communication between [brain] regions [trying to study more complex or abstract constructs]. This high frequency connection can happen within a hundredth of a millisecond and blood flow is far too sluggish to mark it.
– Christie Nicholson

So there are some challenges in getting the pretty pictures to line up with actual behaviors or thoughts (or political preferences, as at least one researcher has attempted to show).

As any brain researcher will acknowledge, too, brain activity happens at the neuronal level (according to our best theories), not by blood flow. It’s akin to trying to understand the process of photosynthesis in plants by measuring how much sunlight a tree or plant is getting. You’ll see the tree grow or plant shrink based upon sunlight, but you’re still not really much closer to understanding the process of photosynthesis. And you may be missing other important, parallel processes you’re not even measuring (such as temperature, in our photosynthesis example).

So do these pictures tell us some piece of new information that other studies haven’t told us? Well, in many cases, no. In research where there’s a claim that one specific area of the brain is the answer to, well, any one thing — love, fear, anger, depression, you name it — the researchers are usually over-reaching, over-generalizing and just trying to get more press and more research grants. These studies are pop-psychology often at its worse, no better than measuring the bumps on our heads to tell us what’s wrong with us.

In these “lazy” fMRI studies, the press reports on the results as though something important has been discovered. But more often than not, it’s nothing more than a few new pretty pictures of someone’s brain doing something.

How Can We Be So Naive?

How can journalists, research grant review committees, editors, peer-reviewers, and everyone else just get so taken in by these studies?

It all goes back to the pretty, compelling pictures.

An action photo, as any photojournalist can tell you, is far more interesting than a shot of a static, unchanging subject. We’re more drawn to photos showing something happening. And while research data is often showing something interesting happening, it’s primary downfall is that it’s data, not a photo.

Data: boring. Photo: interesting.

Photo of our brains in action: really interesting.

Some researchers are getting it right, however, such as Adam Gazzaley’s research center at the University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus. This article describes his research in Wired magazine. Researchers have started embracing these new, more complex techniques for brain analysis, which will hopefully lead to more robust and generalizable conclusions.

The future of the usefulness of brain fMRIs is by conducting more careful, nuanced experiments that move away from the simple, “Think of X; Oh look, this is where X lives in the brain!” It is now understood that our brains are more complex than a simple blood flow analysis can demonstrate. So that while these pretty pictures of our brains remain, hopefully more emphasis will be given to the complexity of human behavior and what the prior ten decades of psychological research has found (even though it didn’t come with the pretty pictures).

Impossible Object. (Credit: Sarah Shuwairi at New York University)

ScienceDaily.com — If you’ve ever been captivated by an M.C. Escher drawing of stairways that lead to nowhere or a waterfall that starts and ends at the same place, then you are familiar with what Psychologists describe as “impossible” objects and scenes.

These are pictures or illusions of three-dimensional images that do not make any visual sense. Inevitably, we end up gawking at the image for several moments, attempting to make sense of the impossible.

These images are, of course, mere deceptions that result from our ability to create three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional images. An artist will use techniques such as shading, shadow, texture and the like to give his or her image a three-dimensional quality and sometimes, as in Escher’s case, to confuse our ability to perceive them.

So when do we develop this ability to perceive coherence in three-dimensional objects? New York University perception researcher Sarah Shuwairi and her colleagues are now attempting to use this natural propensity to gaze at images of impossible objects to pinpoint when human infants develop the ability to perceive three-dimensional shape information from two-dimensional images.

To do this, Shuwairi enlisted 30 4-month-old infants to take part in a series of related experiments. With the help of their parents, the infant subjects sat in front of a computer screen that displayed alternating “possible” and “impossible” three-dimensional images. In the process, the researchers recorded how long the infants looked at each of the objects. As the reasoning goes, if the infants are sensitive to the visual features that give images a three-dimensional quality, they will inevitably gaze at the images that make no sense just as adults do; that is, they will stare at impossible objects longer.

The result was that infants looked significantly longer at impossible figures, suggesting that that as young as 4-months-old, humans have the ability to detect at least some three-dimensional features that give rise to the perception of object coherence.

Shuwairi explains that these findings, the first to document such abilities so early in development, “provide important insights into the development of mechanisms for processing pictorial depth cues that allow adults to extract 3D structure from pictures of objects.” Ultimately, the implications of the research extend beyond the ability to be perplexed by visual impossibilities as researchers now have an additional tool to explain how infants develop an understanding of the physical world around them.

Adapted from materials provided by Association for Psychological Science


WNET.ORG to Open New Production Facility
and TV Studio on Lincoln Center Campus

November 24th, 2008 at 8:07 am

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and WNET.ORG jointly announce that a street-level, glass-walled production facility and television studio will open spring 2009 on the Lincoln Center campus, at the corner of Broadway and 66th Street. The leased space will be used for the production of programming for two of WNET.ORG’s media outlets, Thirteen and WLIW21, the most-watched and the third most-watched public television stations in the nation. The new facility will enable WNET.ORG to offer different types of programs for New York and national audiences and opens the way for new collaborative programming between WNET.ORG and Lincoln Center. The two-level, multipurpose space is part of the dramatic transformation of Lincoln Center, making the campus more transparent and welcoming:

WNET.ORG’s Lincoln Center studios, rendered by a+i architecture, pc

The facility will be the production site for Worldfocus—the new international news program launched in October—which airs in New York, on public television stations across the country, and online. In addition, the studio will be used for the production of Thirteen’s weekly arts showcase SundayArts, which debuted this spring. Located in the newly expanded building housing Alice Tully Hall and The Juilliard School, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in association with FX Fowle, the new production facility will be designed so that the public and passersby can see the programming activity in the studio.

Both Lincoln Center and WNET began operating in the early 1960s, a time of heady growth in New York’s cultural and educational sphere. Lincoln Center was the first organization in the United States to bring together major cultural institutions on one campus in the heart of a city. WNET.ORG’s Thirteen, which predated the launch of PBS by eight years, was one of the country’s earliest public television broadcasters. The two institutions have a long history of collaborative programming, including the Emmy Award-winning Live From Lincoln Center. The new project opens another phase in the ongoing relationship between WNET.ORG and Lincoln Center.

Said Neal Shapiro, CEO and President of WNET.ORG:

“With this new facility, we are bringing WNET.ORG into the life of the city in a new way, enabling New Yorkers and visitors to see into the production process and working with Lincoln Center to add a new dynamism to one of the great streetscapes of New York. Like Lincoln Center, WNET.ORG is international in scope, but firmly rooted in this metropolis. Both organizations share a commitment to enriching the cultural and intellectual life of this city and this new facility will provide almost boundless ways to do so.”

Noted Reynold Levy, President of Lincoln Center:

“We look forward to working with WNET.ORG and exploring many opportunities to develop new collaborative programming in the future. WNET.ORG’s expertise and broadcast experience, and the new production facilities, are a wonderful complement to the array of superb cultural organizations already resident on our 16 acres. This additional communications technology capacity is in keeping with our overall goal of making Lincoln Center more transparent and accessible.”

Said James Tisch, Chairman, WNET.ORG:

“WNET.ORG is one of the great civic and cultural institutions in New York, and a leader in bringing new ideas and new experiences to its audiences. The deepening of the long-standing relationship between the nation’s most watched public media provider and its most renowned performing arts center is a hallmark of what is possible in this unique city. I know this project will add a vibrant new element to both organizations and enrich the lives of people in New York and around the country.”

Commented Frank A. Bennack, Jr., Chairman of Lincoln Center:

“This agreement marks an unprecedented arrangement between two of New York’s leading cultural institutions, with many benefits that will accrue not just to the community, but to New York in general. It reflects a commitment to further engage a broad and diverse audience, a commitment that is particularly timely as we approach Lincoln Center’s 50th anniversary in May, 2009.”

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (LCPA) serves three primary roles: presenter of superb artistic programming, national leader in arts and education and community relations, and manager of the Lincoln Center campus. The Lincoln Center campus unites 12 of the finest performing arts and educational organizations located anywhere. After nearly 50 years of artistic excellence and service to its community, the nation, and to the world, it has embarked upon a major transformation initiative to fully modernize its concert halls and public spaces, renew its 16-acre urban campus, and reinforce its vitality for decades to come. For more information, visit LincolnCenter.org.

New York public media company WNET.ORG is a pioneering provider of television and web content. The parent of Thirteen, WLIW21, and Creative News Group, WNET.ORG brings such acclaimed broadcast series and websites as Worldfocus, Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Charlie Rose, Wide Angle, Secrets of the Dead, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Visions, Consuelo Mack WealthTrack, Wild Chronicles, Miffy and Friends, and Cyberchase to national and international audiences. Through its wide range of channels and platforms, WNET.ORG serves the entire New York City metro area with unique local productions, broadcasts and innovative educational and cultural projects. In all that it does, WNET.ORG pursues a single, overarching goal – to create media experiences of lasting significance for New York, America, and the world.