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This is what happens in the brain when people use mental abstractions

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Jiya Saini
Jiya Saini is a Journalist and Writer at Revyuh.com. She has been working with us since January 2018. After studying at Jamia Millia University, she is fascinated by smart lifestyle and smart living. She covers technology, games, sports and smart living, as well as good experience in press relations. She is also a freelance trainer for macOS and iOS, and In the past, she has worked with various online news magazines in India and Singapore. Email: jiya (at) revyuh (dot) com

The research, which was published in the journal eLife, could pave the way for new advances in basic research, education and rehabilitation, psychiatric disorder treatment, and the development of novel artificial intelligence algorithms.

Researchers have discovered what happens in the brain when people use mental abstractions using a combination of mathematical modelling, machine learning, and brain imaging technology.

In other words, the brain system that normally tracks economic value becomes extremely active and communicates with the system that processes visual data.

These value signals, which are frequently chastised as the foundation for marketing strategies, actually serve an important aspect of our intelligence. The brain selects information and creates mental abstractions based on value.

While inside an MR scanner, the international team tested people’s ability to solve decision problems presented on a computer screen.

Participants were given a small prize if they answered correctly. The problems could be solved using one of two strategies: an inefficient one that relied on all of the data on the screen, or a more efficient one that relied on mental abstractions.

The researchers discovered that when people used mental abstractions, there was an increase in activity in the brain area that signals how valuable things are, using machine learning to analyse the brain data.

In a second experiment, the researchers used a novel neurofeedback technique to manipulate the value of some of the items used in the decision problems directly in the brain. Participants were more likely to use mental abstractions in those decision problems after the manipulation.

Dr. Aurelio Cortese, Chief Researcher at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Kyoto, that led the team, said:

“This study is quite unique in its kind in that a high level, complex function like abstraction was studied with basic visual stimuli and simple decision problems. Yet, this simplicity led us directly to the underlying mechanism, helping resolve a long-standing question in the neuroscience literature: why do we see value signals in the brain literally all the time? Mental abstractions may be the key – we constantly need to think in abstract terms, since our world would be too complex otherwise.”

Dr Mitsuo Kawato, director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratories at ATR, Kyoto, was a co-author on the study, and explained the state-of-the-art neurofeedback manipulation:

“With machine learning and advanced neuroimaging, we can now detect when, and if, a mental representation appears in the brain below the awareness threshold, in real-time. When we do so – we give our participants a small reward. With time, that mental representation becomes paired with reward, or in terms of this experiment, with value. This way, we were able to ‘trick’ the brain into using these newly valuable mental representations to construct abstract thoughts.”

Dr. Benedetto De Martino, Professor at University College London, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, was the senior author on the study and a leading expert in neuroeconomics:

“The proposal that value – traditionally associated with its hedonic dimension (for example the value of a chocolate bar) – could be crucial for some aspects of our general intelligence is radical. Value may well be an abstraction in its own right. This research is part of our broader effort to understand the algorithmic nature of the human mind – and eventually translate this knowledge into new architectures in artificial intelligence, and lead to new treatments for psychiatric illnesses.”

Image Credit: Getty

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