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Lost your keys? Your cat? The brain can rapidly mobilize a search party
Date:4/21/2013

A contact lens on the bathroom floor, an escaped hamster in the backyard, a car key in a bed of gravel: How are we able to focus so sharply to find that proverbial needle in a haystack? Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that when we embark on a targeted search, various visual and non-visual regions of the brain mobilize to track down a person, animal or thing.

That means that if we're looking for a youngster lost in a crowd, the brain areas usually dedicated to recognizing other objects, or even the areas attuned to abstract thought, shift their focus and join the search party. Thus, the brain rapidly switches into a highly focused child-finder, and redirects resources it uses for other mental tasks.

"Our results show that our brains are much more dynamic than previously thought, rapidly reallocating resources based on behavioral demands, and optimizing our performance by increasing the precision with which we can perform relevant tasks," said Tolga Cukur, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study to be published Sunday, April 21, in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"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," he added.

The findings help explain why we find it difficult to concentrate on more than one task at a time. The results also shed light on how people are able to shift their attention to challenging tasks, and may provide greater insight into neurobehavioral and attention deficit disorders such as ADHD.

These results were obtained in studies that used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity of study participants as they searched for people or vehicles in movie clips. In one experiment, participants held down a button whene
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Contact: Yasmin Anwar
yanwar@berkeley.edu
510-643-7944
University of California - Berkeley
Source:Eurekalert

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