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Study identifies our "inner pickpocket"



Researchers have discovered how the human brain can determine the properties of a given object based on purely statistical information: a result that indicates that we all have an "inner pickpocket".

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, the Central European University, and Columbia University found that successful pickpockets are so efficient, among other things, because they can identify objects they've never seen before by simply touching them. Similarly, we are able to sense how an object in a shop window feels when we look at it.

In both scenarios we rely on the ability of the brain to divide the continuous flow of information received from our sensory inputs into sections. The pickpocket can interpret the sequence of small depressions on the fingers as a series of clearly defined objects in a pocket or handbag, while the buyer's visual system can interpret photons as reflections of the objects in the window.

Our ability to extract individual objects by touching or seeing them from crowded scenes and accurately predicting how they will feel, based on how they look or how they look, based on how they feel, is critical to their perception Interaction with the world.

Through clever statistical analysis of past experience, the brain can immediately identify objects without needing clear boundaries or other special hints, and predict unknown properties of new objects. The results are published in the open access journal eLife .

"We are studying how the brain absorbs the continuous flow of information and splits it into objects," said Professor Máté Lengyel of the Cambridge Department of Engineering, who led the research. "The common view is that the brain gets special hints: like edges or occlusions, where one ends and another begins, but we've found that the brain is a really intelligent statistical machine: it looks for patterns and finds blocks of buildings, to construct objects. "

Lengyel and his colleagues designed scenes with multiple abstract shapes with no visible boundaries between them, asking participants to observe the forms either on a screen or along a dividing line, either through or between the objects was going to pull apart.

Participants were then tested for their ability to predict the visual (how familiar were real pieces of the puzzle compared to abstract parts made up of parts of two different parts) and the haptic properties of these pieces of the puzzle (how hard it would be physically) pull new scenes apart in different directions).

Researchers found that the participants were able to form the right mental model of the puzzle pieces from either visual or haptic (touch) experiences and immediately predict the haptic properties from visual and vice versa.

These findings challenge classic views on how we extract and learn from objects in our environment, "Lengyel said," instead we have shown that general purpose statistical calculations known to work well with the youngest infants, are sufficiently powerful to achieve such maximum cognitive performance. In particular, the participants in our study were not selected as professional pickpockets ̵

1; so these results also suggest that we all have a secret, statistically-skilled pickpocket.

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The research was partly funded by the Wellcome Trust and the European Research Council.

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