Understanding the Real World – The Brain’s ‘Physics Engine’ Discovered

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A cognitive scientist at the Johns Hopkins University has isolated the functional parts of the brain physics that deal with the physics of the real world in a paper just published. The author, Jason Fischer, outlined the importance of how we understand the real-world, “It is among the most important aspects of cognition for survival. We run physics simulations all the time to prepare us for when we need to act in the world. But there has been almost no work done to identify and study the brain regions involved in this capability.”

Though the majority of physics that we sense in our environments comes from vision, the brain’s physics engine has been found to be located in a separate set of regions devoted to planning actions. Among other tasks, the research involved monitoring brain activity subjects analysing Jenga style blocks to predict how the tower would fall and aspects of its structure.

When making predictions based on physical effects, the brain’s action and motor planning areas became active, and the more physical information there was to process, the more active they became. This happened even if subjects weren’t conscious of it. The findings intimately link physics intuition and movement planning, and may shed new light on how we learn to process the outside world. Fisher explained, “We believe this might be because infants learn physics models of the world as they hone their motor skills, handling objects to learn how they behave. Also, to reach out and grab something in the right place with the right amount of force, we need real-time physical understanding.”

With skills like trajectory prediction, force anticipation, and multiple object tracking at different velocities being critical skills in many sports, the finding that these distinct brain regions are involved in handling them may explain why some people can read the game better than others, even with the same experience and visual capacities. The findings also correlate with multiple NeuroTracker studies showing that training on a physics based visual processing task intimately relates to motor-skill performance, as well as transfers to improvements in high-level cognitive capacities outside the visual centres of the brain. In an interesting twist, a soon to be published NeuroTracker studies has also demonstrated training transfer to improved math abilities, which are known to involve mental physics simulation for internally visualizing mathematical problems.

The published study can be found here,

Jason Fischer, John G. Mikhael, Joshua B. Tenenbaum, Nancy Kanwisher. Functional neuroanatomy of intuitive physical inference. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016; 201610344 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1610344113

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