Anticipation of rewards excites our brains

December 26th, 2008 - 12:05 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Dec 26 (IANS) Little is known about how rewards excite our brains, specifically as it relates to vision. Could it be that we see things differently if they have paid off before? John Serences, assistant professor of psychology, who heads the Perception and Cognition Lab at University of California San Diego (UCSD), examined how value affects visual processing with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that indirectly measures neural activity.

The brain activity of subjects was recorded as they chose between red and green targets that varied in value across the experiment.

For example, selecting a target might yield 10 cents or nothing, potentially earning subjects making the “right” choices $10. The fMRI scans were conducted at UC Irvine.

Analysis revealed that rewards altered neural activation in many areas of the human visual system, including the very first visually responsive region of the brain, known as V1, which is associated with representing basic features such as edge orientations and colour, said a UCSD release.

“When a target had been valuable in the past - if selecting it had had paid off with money - the visual system represented it more strongly,” Serences said.

“Rewards affected information processing not just at a high level of cognitive function but right from the get-go.”

“Though it is too early to say how this relates to perception,” said Serences, “it raises the intriguing possibility that we see things we value more clearly - much like the way the brain responds to a bright object versus a dimly lit one.”

The study was published in the Friday edition of Neuron.

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