Imagine seeing a dozen pictures flash by in a fraction of a second. You might think it would be impossible to identify any images you see for such a short time. However, a team of neuroscientists from MIT has found that the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds, the first evidence of such rapid processing speed.
That speed is far faster than the 100 milliseconds suggested by previous studies. In the new study, which appears in the journal Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, researchers asked subjects to look for a particular type of image, such as “picnic” or “smiling couple,” as they viewed a series of six or 12 images, each presented for between 13 and 80 milliseconds.
“The fact that you can do that at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find concepts. That’s what the brain is doing all day long — trying to understand what we’re looking at,” says Mary Potter, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and senior author of the study.
This rapid-fire processing may help direct the eyes, which shift their gaze three times per second, to their next target, Potter says. “The job of the eyes is not only to get the information into the brain, but to allow the brain to think about it rapidly enough to know what you should look at next. So in general we’re calibrating our eyes so they move around just as often as possible consistent with understanding what we’re seeing,” she says.
Other authors of the paper are former MIT postdoc Brad Wyble, now at Pennsylvania State University, postdoc Carl Hagmann, and research assistant Emily McCourt.