Sunday, June 8, 2008
Found Abstraction #1: Pareidolia Pole
Telephone pole, 10th Ave, Capital Hill, Seattle
I have a really hard time not seeing a face in this photo. The metal disc at the top right looks like an eye to me, and there's little I can do to reverse that impression. I even tried rotating it, but it just looked like an upside-down face. I am continually amazed how little information is required to cue the face recognition response in the brain. After taking an animal physiology class years ago, I walked away with the impression that there are individual neurons 'assigned' to identifying a given item. When the correct combination of stimuli roll through the brain, the neuron fires. "Face!" it yells like a fourth grade kid that knows only one answer.
The real thing is, of course, much more complicated. A brief perusal of the web turned up the article "One Face, One Neuron" in Scientific American. As it turns out, the theory described above is a bit of antiquated thought known as the Grandmother Theory. According to this model, "the brain has a neuron devoted just for recognizing each family member. Lose that neuron, and you no longer recognize grandma." This theory was tossed out decades ago, but somehow I didn't get the memo.
Nevertheless, according to Diane Martindale, the author of the SA article, researchers have found that the brains recognition response uses a relatively small number of neurons. In the study discussed, researchers used electrodes to observe the brains of patients as they were "shown a large number of images of celebrities, animals, objects and landmark buildings." The participants had the electrodes placed in their brains in order to pinpoint the source of their seizures. The researchers were thrilled by the results.
"In one patient, a single neuron responded to seven different photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, while it practically ignored the 80 other images of animals, buildings, famous or nonfamous people that were also presented.... Similar results occurred in another patient with a neuron specific for actor Halle Berry; the neuron responded not only to photographs but also to a drawing and an image of her name." Similar reactions were observed for less sexy items such as the Sydney Opera house and the Tower of Pisa.
The research suggests that there exist "explicit single-neuron signals associated with individual people." Unlike the theoretical Grandmother Cell, these neurons also fired for other stimuli. So while the neurons are 'assigned' to other tasks, they still jump up and yell at the sight of their particular superstar.
In the end, however, I'm not sure if this same model is at work for the more generalized concept of 'face.' The brain is a complicated and poorly understood organ, and I am almost wholly ignorant of its workings. I do know, however, that I see faces everywhere that I go. I see them in buildings, rocks, wood, and, disturbingly, urinals. Do you?