Your Brain Is Trying to Show You The Future

May 26, 2017

In the Spider-Man films, the geeky superhero is gifted with an internal alarm system that warns him of danger moments before it hits.

But it turns out that all humans have a skill that helps them dodge dangerous situations.

A new study has found that when we anticipate an event, we automatically visualise it in ‘fast-forward’ beforehand. This prediction technique allows us to make quick decisions when they count – for instance, dodging a speeding car as we cross a busy road.

The researchers, from Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, found that our visual system can ‘fast-forward’ a trajectory at least at twice the speed of the actual object, giving us enough time to anticipate its path and act upon it. The fast-forward visualisations allow us to judge the flight path of a ball to catch it, or to evade missiles in a game of Space Invaders.

‘Human vision is incredibly detailed and has, for example, much better resolution compared to other senses like hearing, or smell,’ study lead author Dr Matthias Ekman told MailOnline.

‘However, vision is actually relatively slow, as it takes about 200 milliseconds to “transport” information from our eyes to our visual cortex. ‘That means that we are constantly looking into the (recent) past.’

The team believe that the brain has evolved ways to cancel out the delay between our eyes seeing something and the image reaching the brain’s visual cortex.

One mechanisms they propose, which is described in the new study, is to constantly make predictions about future events.

‘The world we live in has a lot of structure and is bound for instance by physical laws,’ Dr Ekman told MailOnline.

‘An apple will always fall toward the ground. A car that is driving by will not suddenly disappear and appear somewhere else.

‘We can use that knowledge of past experiences to make “smart” predictions about what is going to happen in the future.’

Much of previous research into human decision making has focused on static contexts.

But in everyday life we are often faced with moving objects, such as cars, and have to anticipate their motion.

‘Imagine you are standing at a road, a car is approaching and you need to decide “Do I cross, or do I wait for the car to pass first?”,’ Mr Ekman said.

‘Our study suggests that our visual system can fast-forward the trajectory of the car and thereby help us with our decision whether to wait or not.’

To understand how the human brain anticipates such motion, Mr Ekman and his team showed 29 healthy participants a sequence of dots.

Using ultra-fast functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, they were able to describe the pattern of neuronal activity that accompanies these dot sequences.

Then, they showed participants just the first dot of the sequence, and found that the brain showed the same pattern of activity as when participants were watching the whole sequence, only this time in fast-forward.

The results were confirmed in the same subjects in a repeat study two weeks later.

These results suggest that pre-playing anticipated events in fast-forward may be the way in which we are able to quickly and automatically anticipate the trajectories of moving things in everyday life.

‘We found that our visual system can fast-forward trajectory at least at twice the speed of the actual trajectory,’ Dr Ekman told MailOnline.

‘That gives as enough time to anticipate the trajectory and act upon it.’

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