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Sexy objects stimulate our brain

According to researchers at the University of California at San Diego, visual areas of our brain respond more to valuable objects than other ones. In other words, our brain has stronger reactions when we see a diamond ring than we look at junk. Similarly, our brain vision areas are more excited by a Ferrari than, say, a Tata new Nano car. In this holiday season, I'm sure you've received gifts that excited your brain -- and others that you already want to resell on an auction site. ...

According to researchers at the University of California at San Diego, visual areas of our brain respond more to valuable objects than other ones. In other words, our brain has stronger reactions when we see a diamond ring than we look at junk. Similarly, our brain vision areas are more excited by a Ferrari than, say, a Tata new Nano car. In this holiday season, I'm sure you've received gifts that excited your brain -- and others that you already want to resell on an auction site. ...

Hot spots showing brain's neural activity

You can see above hot spots showing the brain's neural activity when a person is looking for a particular object. (Credit: John Serences, UC San Diego) Here is a link to a larger version of this illustration which was published in "Looking for something? Surprising number of neurons help find it, research shows" (University of California at Irvine news release, July 18, 2007). Please read it for additional details.

This study was conducted by John Serences, assistant professor of psychology and head of the Perception and Cognition Lab at UC San Diego.

So how did Serences find that we're 'rewarding' valuable objects? "Serences examined how value affects visual processing with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a brain-scanning technique that indirectly measures neural activity. The brain activity of subjects was recorded as they chose between red and green targets that varied in value across the experiment. Selecting a target might yield 10 cents or nothing, potentially earning subjects making the 'right' choices 10 dollars. The fMRI scans were conducted at UC Irvine."

What were the results of these tests? "Analysis revealed that rewards altered neural activation in many areas of the human visual system, including the very first visually responsive region of the brain, the area of the cortex known as 'V1,' which is associated with representing basic features such as edge orientations and color. 'When a target had been valuable in the past -- if selecting it had had paid off with money -- the visual system represented it more strongly,' Serences said. 'Rewards affected information processing not just at a high level of cognitive function but right from the get-go.'"

Now, let's look at an article by Randy Dotinga, from HealthDay News, which carries a great title, "Bling Makes Your Brain Sing" (December 24, 2008).

Here is a quote from this article. "'One of the implications is that your brain is signaling to you that the items have been previously rewarded,' Serences said. 'Our brain is treating those things differently than those that have been associated with no rewards or those that have been associated with fewer rewards than in the past.' In an unusual finding, the researchers found that the brains of the subjects seemed to remember which targets were more rewarding even if the subjects themselves actually forgot. Is this a uniquely human ability? Serences said that isn't clear, although he wouldn't be surprised if other animals have the same skills. 'Monkeys would probably have the same thing, and I wouldn't be surprised if a dog did, too,' he said."

This research work has been published in the Neuron journal under the title "Value-Based Modulations in Human Visual Cortex" (Volume 60, Issue 6, Pages 1169-1181, December 26, 2008). Here is the beginning of the abstract. "Economists and cognitive psychologists have long known that prior rewards bias decision making in favor of options with high expected value. Accordingly, value modulates the activity of sensorimotor neurons involved in initiating movements toward one of two competing decision alternatives. However, little is known about how value influences the acquisition and representation of incoming sensory information or about the neural mechanisms that track the relative value of each available stimulus to guide behavior. Here, fMRI revealed value-related modulations throughout spatially selective areas of the human visual system in the absence of overt saccadic responses."

If you think that this research work just confirms what common sense tells us, think again. Here is the conclusion of the UC San Diego news release. "Further research on how the brain represents the value of different objects, Serences said, could someday help us better understand how addictions influence information processing in the brain. The mere sight of drugs or particular foods, for example, may have a larger impact on the psyches of some people. Their eyes may be on the wrong prize."

Sources: University of California at San Diego news release, December 24, 2008; and various websites

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