Research shows integration of perceptual and conceptual information

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September 13, 2019

A psychology professor from the University of Toronto spoke about the relationship between the processing of perceptual and conceptual information in the brain to members of the Brandeis community gathered in the Gerstenzang Science Library. Dr. Morgan Barense spoke about her lab’s research on memory and perception, and on how the brain processes our perceptual and conceptual information to learn more about our surroundings. 

The main findings of her research demonstrated that there is a relationship between the processing perceptual and conceptual information in the perirhinal cortex. Barense went onto explain the two types of distractors that their study utilized: visual and conceptual. 

A visual distractor is words that look visually similar to the target word, such as a hair dryer and gun. Both are similar shapes and therefore a visual distractor. A conceptual distractor is a word that is in similar context with the target word, for example, hair dryer and comb. Both are used on your hair, so they have a conceptual connection.

“The perirhinal cortex is densely connected with regions throughout the ventrovisual stream that are known to be important,” explained Barense. “[This is] critical for visual object perception and . . . known to be important for abstract conceptual processing.” 

Barense’s talk focused on four regions of interest in the brain: the lateral occipital cortex (LOC), parahippocampal cortex, the temporal pole and the perirhinal cortex (PRC). She highlighted in her talk that the lateral occipital cortex is “important for visual perception,” the parahippocampal cortex can represent “contextual associations of objects,” the temporal pole is known “to be critical for conceptual processing,” and finally, the PRC is where “we expected to observe convergence.” 

She went onto explain how visual tasks can be described both visually and conceptually, which demonstrates the evidence for integration. 

“If when participants are making visual judgments, and their patterns of brain data, you can describe that conceptual similarities of those objects, that is evidence that the conceptual attributes are integrated,” Barense explained. “They’re coming along for the ride on these visual judgements.” 

Since publishing their findings, Barense’s lab has begun the second phase of their trial. Preliminary research shows that brains are less distracted by the visual distractor, but extremely distracted by the conceptual word, she said. 

In this study, participants used a touch screen device. They were to hold their finger on a starting location, and then drag that finger to the target word based on the color they lit up after a few seconds of seeing the words in black and white.

Data from their recent study showed that when met with two words that contain visually similar concepts, participants had a very distinct curve, moving their finger at first straight, and then to the side of the target about halfway through the screen. When met with two words that contain contextually similar concepts, however, participants stayed in the middle of the two targets significantly longer, having to think more about their decision. 

Barense’s Memory & Perception Lab mainly sees “how the brain enables the mind,” according to the lab’s website. At the Memory & Perception Lab, she mainly focuses on how to use advancements in cognitive neuroscience to reduce the effects of memory loss illnesses. 

Barense earned her bachelor’s from Harvard University and her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. She started her career at the University of Toronto as a member of the faculty before she was promoted to associate professor in 2014. This past year, she was promoted to full professor. Barense has won many awards, most notably the Early Investigator Award and Lifetime Fellowship from the Society of Experimental Psychologists. 

Barense’s talk was hosted by Professor Angela Gutchess (PSYC) and is part of the M.R. Bauer Colloquium Series. The next talk in the series will be Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 12:30 p.m. with Survya Ganguli, a Stanford professor, in Gerstenzang 121.

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