Brain and Body

Researchers Discover Brain Regions Responsible For Understanding Physics

August 19, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Brain scans
Photo credit: wyinoue/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It forms part of our cognition for survival! 

In a combined effort, scientists from the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a set of brain regions responsible for comprehending and computing real time physics calculations, which help us understand the world around us.

The lead author of the latest study, Jason Fischer, said the following in a media release:
“We run physics simulations all the time to prepare us for when we need to act in the world. It is among the most important aspects of cognition for survival. But there has been almost no work done to identify and study the brain regions involved in this capability.”

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Fischer and researchers from MIT conducted sets of experiments to help them to find the parts of the brain involved in physical interference.

The researcher recruited 12 volunteer subjects and instructed them to look at videos of Jenga-style block towers. While the subjects were watching the videos, they were asked to guess where they thought the blocks would land if the tower should fall over, or if they thought the tower had more blue or yellow blocks. Fischer and his team recorded the subjects’ brain activity while they were asked the questions.  When the subjects guessed which way the blocks would land if the tower tumbled, they had to use their physics intuition, whereas the question about the color was primarily testing the visual bearings of the subjects.

You can watch the test video here.

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For the second part of their investigation, the researchers recruited a second group of subjects and had them watch a video of two dots bouncing around a screen. They then asked the subjects to guess which way they thought the dots would bounce, based on physics and their own reasoning.

With both sets of experiments,the researchers found that when the subjects tried predicting physical outcomes, activity was most responsive in the premotor cortex and supplementary motor region of the brain: an area described as the brain’s action-planning region.

“Our findings suggest that physical intuition and action planning are intimately linked in the brain,” said Fischer. “We believe this might be because infants learn physics models of the world as they hone their motor skills, handling objects to learn how they behave. Also, to reach out and grab something in the right place with the right amount of force, we need real-time physical understanding.”

The researchers hope their latest findings will provide better insights into movement disorders, like apraxia, as well as improve robot design in the future by understanding which part of the brain is involved in physics calculations.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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