Uncovering Regions of the Brain Responsible for Visual Perception and Object Recognition

By: Daniel Logozzo

Over the past two years, Tess Durham, Fordham College at Rose Hill ’21, has been involved in a number of research projects in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Her main research interests involve higher-level visual perception, especially problems related to determining which regions of the brain are responsible for processing visual data. Durham has conducted much of her work and research under Dr. Elissa Aminoff, Assistant Professor of Psychology, with a focus on cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging technologies. 

Under Dr. Aminoff, Durham has participated in work related to visual perception in Fordham’s Vision and Memory Lab, where she assists in running EEG (electroencephalogram) studies, a process that involves recording electrical activity in various brain regions. Prior research projects that Durham was engaged with pertain to the examination of brain activity during the perception of different weather scenes.

Durham’s most recent ongoing research project centers on the roles played by different brain regions in coding for objects during visual perception. In particular, she intends to investigate the relationship between neural activity in the visual perception of objects and that in the perception of whole scenes. In describing some of the contexts of her work, Durham explained that much research in visual perception tends to firmly distinguish between the perception of scenes and the perception of objects, and studies each of these elements in isolation. Conversely, Durham is specifically interested in drawing connections between these two realms of visual processing. “What is a scene without objects?” she asks, drawing attention to the potentially crucial role that the perception of particular kinds of objects plays in the brain’s processing of scenes as a whole. She notes that, from previous research in the field, specific brain regions are known to be more active in, or code for, the perception of scenes. A central question of hers, therefore, is to what degree these regions code not only for scenes taken as a whole, but also for particular objects within them.

The data that Durham has been working with in this project is from a pre-collected set which Dr. Aminoff gathered in prior research at Carnegie Mellon University. For that research, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans were used to measure the oxygenation of different regions of the brain during the perception of hundreds of images of unique scenes, tracking neural activity through increases and decreases of blood flow. Durham’s current project includes running through this data set, sorting for different types of scenes (e.g., “kitchen” and “forest”), and creating a measure for objects through which all distinct items in each given scene can be identified and enumerated. 

This process of classifying scenes and objects for comparison with the pre-collected data from fMRI scans also involves work in MATLAB and SPSS, technical software used for statistical analysis and data organization. One notable observation Durham shared from her research is evidence of a kind of “hemisphere effect,” wherein the right hemisphere of the brain appears to be much more active than the left in these kinds of visual perception. This project on the visual processing of objects and scenes is currently in its final stages. Durham has been working on writing and revising an article about the project, revisiting the analysis, and taking her reviewers’ suggestions into account.

Throughout her research, Durham has been interested in these questions regarding visual processing in the brain. She hopes to pursue further studies in this area and specifically expresses interest in questions concerning sensory integration(the ways that sensory data is processed and organized by the brain to make daily activities possible). Among other potential areas for future inquiry, Durham mentioned the neuroscience of meditation practices, which is an emerging field of study. She is also considering graduate school, but hopes to explore different research interests before deciding which field to specialize.

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