Posted in biology, communication and networking, medical imaging

Color vision skewed by the brain

Rendering of human brain.
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I knew it, I knew it! I remember coming up with this theory when I was 9 years old having an argument with my little sister about whether or not the blue in her skirt matched her shoes. She insisted it did, and I insisted it was more green. My dad chimed in and said it was purple, and stop arguing. I quickly realized a) I would never win an argument with my sister about fashion, and b) maybe our brains were all seeing the same color differently.

Now, Anna Roe, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University., has found that to be exactly the case!

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A brain area known to play a critical role in vision is divided into compartments that respond separately to different colors and orientations.

The findings have important implications for furthering understanding of perception and attention. The research was published Nov. 14 in Nature Neuroscience.

“In vision, objects are defined by both their shape and their surface properties, such as color and brightness. For example, to identify a red apple, your visual system must process both the shape of the apple and its color,” says Roe. “Our study showed that in V4, which is a brain area that plays a role in visual object recognition, there is significant segregation of color/brightness and shape processing regions.

“We also found that processing regions come in different flavors. There are color processing domains, for example, for purple, green and yellow. Shape processing domains come with preference for different orientations, such as horizontal or vertical. This is a functional segregation that has never been seen before in V4.”

The researchers made their discovery by examining V4 in awake macaque monkeys. V4 was already known to play a key role in shape and color perception, but uncertainty about its organization has led to debates among researchers about the overall role it plays in vision.

“One reason this segregation is important relates to visual attention. For example, in your multicolored world, you can easily pick out a purple object if you’re looking for it. How does your brain direct your attention to only purple?

“The fact that there are purple domains in V4 that are distinct from green or yellow domains gives us a handle on the specificity with which we can focus our attention. These domain-based ideas about how attention is implemented in the brain are exciting directions that we are currently investigating.”

Compartmentalization may reflect groups of neurons that are processing more complex aspects of color and form, such as integrating different contours that are the same color, to achieve overall shape perception.

Though V4 is segregated, the different areas do work together to process information, Roe explains. “Functional segregation does not mean that shape and surface information do not interact. What it means is that there are distinct circuits for color vs. shape.”

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science contributed to the study, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Vanderbilt Vision Research Center, and Vanderbilt University Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience.

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Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.