CU-Boulder study: Brain may rely on computer-like mechanism to interpret novel situations

By: InnovatioNews Tuesday September 24, 2013 0 comments Tags: Boulder, CU-Boulder, Randall O'Reilly

University of Colorado logoBOULDER - A study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that human brains could process new situations with a method similar to the "pointer" system used by computers.

Pointers are used to tell a computer where to look for information stored elsewhere in the system to replace a variable.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team relied on sentences with words used in unique ways to test the brain's ability to understand the role familiar words play in a sentence even when those words are used in unfamiliar - even nonsensical -ways.

As an example, in the sentence," I want to desk you," we understand the word "desk" is being used as a verb even though our past experience is to use it as a noun.

"The fact that you understand that the sentence is grammatically well-formed means you can process these completely novel inputs," said Randall O'Reilly, professor in CU-Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and co-author of the study.

"But in the past when we've tried to get computer models of a brain to do that, we haven't been successful."

The study shows the connections in the brain between the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia could play a similar role to the pointers used in computer science.

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