Researchers have long tried to learn how the brain remembers spatial environments, especially those that are similar, such as two stores in the same supermarket chain , and how the brain avoids confusion, or not.
A new study by psychologists at the University of Arizona suggests that the brain can treat similar environments as if they were even more different than a pair of environments that have nothing in common. ** Brain scientists know the concept as "repulsion." **.
The 27 study participants watched an animated video from the perspective of someone walking through three virtual cities. The cities looked almost identical : each included a circular green field with a store in the center, and six other stores were spaced around the edge of the city.
The stores were all in the same location in each city, but not all cities had the same stores. You can find three stores in the same location in the three cities; three other stores could only be found in two cities; and each city had a unique store.
The videos took participants on a virtual walk from the store downtown to each of the other stores in each city. The participants were then asked to memorize where each store was in each city, where the stores were in relation to each other, and how long it took them to walk between certain stores. They were able to review the videos until they felt they had memorized the designs for the three cities .
The participants were then asked about the distribution of the cities, such as which stores were in which cities and how far apart the stores were from each other. Those who scored at least 80% on their test watched the videos and answered the questions again, but this time inside an MRI scanner.
The patterns of brain activity the researchers observed were often very similar to each other. But when participants were asked about stores that appeared in more than one city, their brain activity was strikingly different, indicating that the participants’ brains were treating the same stores shared between cities as if they were even more different. than two stores that were, in fact, completely different.
The findings suggest that this is how our brains walk a fine line between learning new information without using limited brain power to relearn similar processes or experiences that occur every day. The study also strengthens support for a theory about where the brain stores information about the similarities between two environments. The study shows that this information can be held in the prefrontal cortex, a section near the front of the brain that manages complex functions such as planning and decision-making.