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Brain's Filing System Uncovered

Socks in the sock drawer, shirts in the shirt drawer, the time-honored lessons of helping organize one’s clothes learned in youth.// But what parts of the brain are used to encode such categories as socks, shirts, or any other item, and how does such learning take place?

New research from Harvard Medical School (HMS) investigators has identified an area of the brain where such memories are found. They report in the advanced online Nature that they have identified neurons that assist in categorizing visual stimuli. They found that the activity of neurons in a part of the brain called the parietal cortex encode the category, or meaning, of familiar visual images and that brain activity patterns changed dramatically as a result of learning. Their results suggest that categories are encoded by the activity of individual neurons (brain cells) and that the parietal cortex is a part of the brain circuitry that learns and recognizes the meaning of the things that we see.

“It was previously unknown that parietal cortex activity would show such dramatic changes as a result of learning new categories,” says lead author David Freedman, PhD, HMS postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology. “Some areas of the brain, particularly the frontal and temporal lobes, have been associated with visual categorization. Since these brain areas are all interconnected, an important next step will be to determine their relative roles in the categorization process.”

We are not born with a built-in ability to recognize categories like table, chair, and camera. Instead, most categories such as these are learned through experience. Categories are a cornerstone of complex behavior, because they give meaning to the sights and sounds around us. For example, if you are told that a new electronic gadget is a telephone, this instantly provides a great deal of information about its relevant parts (speaker, microphone, keypad for dialing, etc.) and functions.

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