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"Frame of Mind" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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A team of Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists and cognitive neuroscientists have found a way to identify where people's thoughts and perceptions of familiar objects originate in the brain by identifying the patterns of brain activity associated with the objects.

Credit: NSF/Clear Channel Communications/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Some thoughts on thinking. (SOUND: cartoon head bonk) Ouch.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

New brain research out of Carnegie Mellon indicates that there's a lot more going on in our melons than we might think. The study focused on the activity in the brain, when people look at pictures of simple things like tools or dwellings.

Seems simple at the outset. (SOUND: paper rustle) It's a picture of a hammer -- next?

But, according to the researchers, when you look at that picture, a whole range of brain centers are activated:

(SOUND: surreal inner brain voices on tiny public address speakers):

"shape -- hammer, ball pen..."
"function -- tool, drives nails..."
"sensory -- cold, metallic, heavy..."
"motor skills -- lift, swing, strike..."

To be able to "see" the brain activity, the scientists used an MRI scanner -- and trained a computer to look at the scans and identify brain activation patterns. In this way, they could tell which of ten possible pictures study participants were looking at.

The study also uncovered a commonality among responses of all participants. It seems your brain activity and mine are pretty much the same when we're thinking of the same objects. This research could open new doors to understanding conditions like autism.

And maybe it could explain why, when I saw the hammer, all I could think was, "whack-a-mole!" (SOUND: bonk)

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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