Different parts of the brain handle fantasy and reality

The ability to recognize objects in the real world is handled by different parts of the brain than those that allow us to imagine what the world is like. That is the result of a brain mapping experiment published in the March 28 issue of the journal Neuron. The study focused on two cognitive tasks widely used by experimental psychologists. One is mental rotation mentally rotating a complex object into a different position to compare it with a second similar shape and object recognition determining whether two complex objects are the same or different.

Mental rotation and object recognition are indistinguishable from a behavioral viewpoint: You cant tell them apart, says the papers first author, Isabel Gauthier, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt. As a result, the field has been deadlocked over the question of whether the brain uses the same mechanism or different mechanisms for the two tasks.

Michael J. Tarr, one of the papers co-authors and professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University, had proposed in several papers with Steven Pinker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that the same mechanism must be involved in the two tasks. There are parts of our brain that are involved in our ability to imagine the world, he says. The question is, Are those the same as the parts of the brain that we use to know what things are? And the answer appears to be, No, they are not.

Also collaborating on the study were William G. Hayward of Chinese University of Hong Kong and an fMRI team from the Yale School of Medicine headed by John C. Gore.

To find out what parts of the brain are involved in these two mental tasks, the researchers began with six unfamiliar geometric shapes that look something like the pieces from an unfolded Rubics cube. They used three of these objects two of which were mirror images for the mental rotation tasks and three which were slightly different but similar in appearance for

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Vanderbilt University

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