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How the Brain Categorizes Objects

The human brain is adept at recognizing similar items and placing them into categories. In a new study, M.I.T. neuroscientists have identified the brain activity that seems to control this skill. 

What’s the Latest Development?

A study published in the July 27 issue of the journal Neuron summarizes research performed on monkeys trained to assign patterns of dots into one of two categories. As the monkeys began to pick up on general traits belonging to each category, “brain activity shifted from the striatum, a more primitive brain region, to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for high-level functions such as planning and decision making.” In other words, the striatum quickly learns the individual puzzle pieces, and the prefrontal cortex puts them together.

What’s the Big Idea?

Professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Gregory Ashby says the new study represents the “clearest picture yet” of the striatum’s involvement in category learning. “We’ve known for quite a while that the striatum plays an important role in category learning, but it was not at all clear exactly what that role was,” he says. The results of the study suggest a potential explanation for why autistic children focus intently on details, but often seem unable to group things into broad categories.


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