Your Brain’s a Search-and-Rescue Machine

When hunting for a lost object or child, areas of the brain normally dedicated to other tasks shift their performance to join in on the search

Photo: Moyan_Brenn

You’ve lost your keys. Or cell phone. Or child. Your focus sharpens. Where is it?

For your brain, such search-and-rescue efforts go beyond run-of-the-mill problem solving. According to new research published in Nature Neuroscience, the areas of the brain normally dedicated to abstract thought pitch in to help out with the hunt for the missing object.

These searches involve a complex mix of both visual and non-visual regions of the brain, which optimizes on problem solving by directing all of its resources to finding the misplaced item, whether it be a child or a set of keys. “As you plan your day at work, for example, more of the brain is devoted to processing time, tasks, goals and rewards, and as you search for your cat, more of the brain becomes involved in recognition of animals,” the authors said in a statement.

To find these results, the research team used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to view the brain activity of participants as they searched for people or vehicles in movie clips. The brain scans and subsequent statistical analyses showed that when people searched for humans, more of the areas of their cortex dedicated to human images was devoted to human processing. The reverse was true for vehicles.

The findings build on an earlier UC Berkeley brain imaging study that showed how the brain organizes thousands of animate and inanimate objects into what researchers call a “continuous semantic space.” Those findings challenged previous assumptions that every visual category is represented in a separate region of visual cortex. Instead, researchers found that categories are actually represented in highly organized, continuous maps.

The areas that respond to other visual categories, such as plants or buildings, shifted their performance and became tuned in to humans or vehicles. This vastly expanded the area of the brain engaged in the search, the researchers write. These changes took place in areas of the brain dedicated to both vision and non-vision, including the prefrontal cortex which is usually engaged in abstract thought, complex mental tasks and planning.

Are you keys still lost? Take a breath. Stop freaking out about the consequences of being late. Let your brain mobilize its resources.

Ah, there they are!

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