The Biological Mind’s Eye

IMG_6936What makes you YOU?  This question opens the introduction to Alan Jasanoff’s brilliant work, The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are.  A philosophical question perhaps, mindful of The Who’s Who Are You.

Along with David Van Essen, famous for mapping the thirty-something visual pathways in the primate brain, Alan Jasanoff is part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative,  focusing scientific attention on the necessary tools to understand the human brain and mind.

Van Essen Diagram

On page 83 of his thought-provoking book, Jasanoff offers a diagram indicating regions of the occipital lobe that, according to neuroimaging studies, correspond specifically to (1) place, (2) body parts, (3) faces, (4) faces and motion, (5) motion alone, and (6) thinking about other people’s thinking.  Certainly a broader conceptualization of vision than what’s usually associated with occipital lobe.  Take note as well of the area labeled (7), corresponding to difficult cognitive tasks.


Jasanoff therefore cautions against limiting the association of specific functions with circumscribed areas of the brain, which fosters a neuro-segregation that keeps the biological bases of our mental processes separated from each other and the rest of the world.  In the real world, the boundary between brain and environment is often blurred.    Even parts of the frontal lobe, seat of the brain’s “executive functions” about as far flung from the occipital lobe that we can get, are among areas activated by basic visual or auditory input.  In that regard, research by Robert Desimone cited by Jasanoff shows that neuro-modulation occurs widely throughout the cerebral cortex through behavioral relevance and attention factors.

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In Where’s Waldo-like fashion, Desimone and colleagues have combined MEG (magnetoencephalography) with fMRI to obtain better mapping of spatially based and feature based components of attention.   I found a nice presentation by Desminone which, if you have 25 minutes to spare, may be informative to watch.

Here’s a key fact, extracted from the 13 to 16 minute mark of the video.  It appears that the Frontal Eye Fields (FEF) serve a parallel function for processing locations in space that the Inferior Front Junction (IFJ) serves for identifying faces and places.  Moreover, the bottom-up feed appears to be synchronized with top-down signals in coherent interactions over the course of about 20 milliseconds in each directions.

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Cognitive context modulates the involvement of the Frontal Eye Fields, consistent with the role played by the FEF in visuo-spatial attention, visual awareness, and perceptual modulation.  Consider the implications the next time you record eye movements or administer  saccade testing,  It’s part of the distinction between the biopsychosocial and biomedical models of vision, consistent with what Carole Hong and I alluded to in our paper on visual factors in childhood behavioral disorders.

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