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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How do we perceive a rainbow?

How do we perceive a rainbow? And does everyone perceive a rainbow in the same way? These seemingly simple questions can reveal some interesting features of the human brain. For instance, is the “striped” appearance of the rainbow—the seven distinct bands of color that we see—a construct of our higher mental processes, or do the mechanics of human color vision determine it at a very early perceptual level? If your language does not have separate words for “blue” and “green” (and many languages, including Welsh, do not), do you perceive these shades as more similar than a speaker of English?

Searching for answers to these questions, in recent years many scientists have concluded that speakers of languages that label color in ways distinct from those used in English may see a different rainbow from that of English speakers. Recent studies have claimed that language processing is automatically involved in perceptual decisions about color in the brains of adults, even when hues are visible only briefly (100 milliseconds) or when decisions do not require participants to name colors verbally. Moreover, these effects are language-specific, so speakers of Russian or Korean show a different pattern of responses to color than speakers of English.

A recent study in PNAS by researchers at the University of Surrey challenges this view, however. It suggests an intriguing and novel account of color categorization in infants. In this study 18 English-speaking adults and 13 four-month-old infants were shown a colored target on a colored background. Adults were faster to initiate eye-movements toward the target when the target and background colors came from different color categories (for example, blue target, green background) than when both target and background were the same color (such as different shades of blue).

How Babies See Color

This discrimination advantage for different-category compared to same-category judgments is called Categorical Perception (CP). It is now clear that the effect in adults is language-driven. For instance, healthy, right-handed adults only show CP selectively when colors are presented to the right visual field. It is generally accepted that CP occurs because colors presented to the right visual field preferentially access language-processing areas located in the left hemisphere.

The authors of the new article agree with the current general consensus that CP in adults depends on privileged access to language areas in the left hemisphere. They also agree that the precise color terms that are represented in language are culturally transmitted during childhood and that there has been no “nativist,” or innate, pre-linguistic partitioning by the visual processing pathways into innate color categories in the left hemisphere. This idea fits with their data demonstrating that four-month-old infants showed no hint of CP when targets were presented in the right visual field. Because these infants have not yet acquired language, it is unsurprising that they do not show language-driven category effects in the left hemisphere.

So far, so predictable. What is striking, however, is that the same four-month-old infants did show a CP effect in the right hemisphere, exactly the reverse of the effect shown by adults. When a green target appeared on a green background in the left visual field (which has preferential access to the right hemisphere), infants were significantly slower to move their eyes toward the target than when a blue target appeared on the same green background. The authors claim that their results provide some evidence for pre-linguistic partitioning of color categories in four-month-old infants, but only from stimuli that preferentially access the right hemisphere. Such a result provides some empirical evidence for the existence of an innate pre-linguistic category boundary between blue and green.

If infants show an initial innate organization of color into precise categories in the right hemisphere of the brain, does such organization persist into adulthood? The answer to this question appears to be, “no, it does not.” Even when the dominant left-hemisphere system is suppressed by a concurrent task that prevents access to verbal codes in the left hemisphere, (see here and here, or cannot be reached in split-brain patients—people who have had the connection severed between their two hemispheres?no trace of categorical organization in the right hemisphere remains. If the present results are really evidence of some pre-linguistic, and possibly innate categorical organization in the right hemisphere, the pre-linguistic system is not merely overshadowed in the process of language learning. Rather, it is completely obliterated. In this case, the power of language to shape our cognitive categories must be enormously strong, and Whorf’s controversial views about the relationship between language and thought would appear to have been vindicated.

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Posted by Ajay :: 5:51 PM :: 0 comments

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The “ghost video”

A mysterious, glowing, white blob was captured on videotape June 15, 2007, by a security camera at a courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While the court personnel who first saw the baffling image didn’t know what to make of it, others soon offered their own explanations. As might be expected, that it had been a ghost was among the most popular—possibly of a man killed there in 1985.
The “ghost video” became a nationwide hit and has been viewed over 85,000 times on the YouTube Web site (see

Posted by Ajay :: 5:46 PM :: 0 comments

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