Principal Investigator: Dr. Philip Servos
Research Summary: Research in the Perception Lab seeks to understand how the human brain represents the sensory world. Dr. Servos’ focuses on two of the senses: touch and vision. Understanding how perception arises in the brain might seem relatively trivial given how effortlessly we make use of it throughout the day. It feels like the brain acts as a mirror of the sensory information arriving to our brain, but this analogy is flawed – what, in the end, is ‘looking’ at the mirror? It is a highly complex network of hundreds of millions of brain cells that work together to allow us such a rich representation of the world. Experiments in the Perception Lab are aimed at understanding how these complicated networks of brain cells allow humans to represent the worlds of touch and vision. We conduct behavioural experiments investigating how the touch and visual systems process shape and motion information. We also investigate various illusions in these two senses because quite often perceptual illusions can provide hints to researchers about the underlying mechanisms responsible for veridical touch and vision. The main tool used in the Perception Lab to “peer inside the head” is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI is a non-invasive brain imaging technique that allows us to examine brain function. While humans perform various visual and tactile tasks we can monitor the activity of structures in their brains as small as a cubic millimeter.
Implications of the Research: The highly reliable and effortless way that our sense of touch and vision operate under normal circumstances is easy to take for granted. Quite often we only appreciate just how exquisite these senses are after they are impaired following brain injury. The research conducted in the Perception Lab will allow us to map out the brain areas involved in our sense of touch and vision. These findings will inform health care practitioners in diverse ways. For example, understanding the organization of the brain maps representing the touch system will allow us to better treat chronic pain brought about by the loss of a limb through traumatic injury. Brain damage caused by stroke often causes perceptual deficits. Understanding how the perceptual system is organized will lead to better rehabilitation strategies for such patients. Finally, detailed brain maps of the touch and visual systems can be used in surgical planning – for example, in the treatment of epilepsy.