Out of sight, out of mind? Not necessarily

10/31/05

Visual information is processed even when the visual cortex is temporarily shut down

HOUSTON -- (Oct. 31, 2005) - Visual information can be processed unconsciously when the area of the brain that records what the eye sees is temporarily shut down, according to research at Rice University in Houston.

The research, published the week of Oct. 31 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' (PNAS) online Early Edition, suggests the brain has more than one pathway along which visual information can be sent.

For the study, the researchers induced temporary, reversible blindness lasting only a fraction of a second in nine volunteers with normal vision. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a harmless noninvasive technique using brief magnetic pulses, was applied to the volunteers' visual cortex -- the area at the back of the brain that processes what the eye sees - to interrupt the normal visual pathway. The volunteers looked at a computer screen, and during their momentary blindness, either a horizontal or a vertical line or a red or a green dot flashed on the screen.

Researchers then asked the study participants whether they had seen a horizontal or a vertical line; because their primary visual pathway had been shut down, the participants reported that they saw nothing. However, when forced to guess which line had appeared on their computer screen, the participants gave the correct answer 75 percent of the time. When the participants had to guess whether a red or a green dot had flashed on the screen, they gave the correct answer with 81 percent accuracy.

"This high degree of accuracy for both the directional orientation and color tasks was significantly above chance," said Tony Ro, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator for the study. "Even though the human primary visual cortex activity was temporarily shut down, it's clear that detailed visual information was still being processed unconsciously."

Because only a certain region of the thalamus - the area of the brain where all sensory information is relayed -- can process color, the study provides evidence that there must be a pathway that goes through this region of the thalamus to the higher visual centers of the brain, Ro said.

"In addition to providing direct evidence that unconscious processing takes place within the brain - a controversial claim that was advanced by the likes of Sigmund Freud and William James - our results suggest that multiple pathways relay visual input into the central nervous system for different types of processing," Ro said. "And our study also begins to shed light on the brain structures that are necessary for consciousness, with the primary visual cortex playing an essential role for visual awareness."

The phenomenon of "blindsight" has been reported in patients with brain damage who report not seeing something but correctly identify the shape and location when forced to guess. Ro noted that his study demonstrates that TMS can be used successfully to induce blindsight in people with normal vision.

Ro's co-authors on the PNAS paper were graduate student Jennifer Boyer and Stephanie Harrison, a summer intern.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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