Tracked down the physics center of our brain

Intuitive physics understanding is closely linked with areas for action planning

Whether falling blocks or a flying ball - we intuitively understand the physics behind such everyday phenomena. © John Hopkins University
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Whether falling blocks or flowing water: we understand the physics behind such everyday phenomena intuitively. Because our brain has its own physics center - an area that constantly evaluates the physical rules of our environment, as researchers have found. Accordingly, this physics center sits in the motor cortex, the part of the cerebral cortex that controls our actions and movements.

In our everyday life, we are constantly experiencing events that follow clear physical laws. Unconsciously, we recognize the effect of gravity, the conservation of momentum, or the ballistics of throwing, and intuitively incorporate it into our actions. These rules are already intuitively understood by babies: they pinch when an object suddenly falls up instead of down or when water behaves like a solid.

"In our heads, we're constantly doing physics simulations to prepare for action, " says lead author Jason Fischer of Johns Hopkins University. "Recognizing these physical rules is one of the most important mental abilities for our survival." But how and where our brain does these instinctive physics calculations was previously unknown.

Wandering points and waving towers

In order to locate the physics center of our brain, Fischer and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments. They showed volunteers different videos while recording their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In a video, the participants saw two moving points whose further path they should predict.

In another video shaky towers of yellow and blue wooden blocks were seen. The subjects should now either guess where the blocks would fall when the tower collapsed, or guess whether there are more yellow or blue blocks in the tower. While the second question primarily activated visual perception, the first one aimed at the intuition of physics - and therefore had to activate the physics center in the brain. display

Where do the Kl tzchen fall? When we think about it, the physics center becomes active in our brain. "Johns Hopkins University

Physics calculation in the motor cortex

And in fact, whenever the subjects unconsciously had to incorporate physical laws, other areas became active in their brains than in purely visual tasks. And the more physics hid behind a task, the more intensively these brain areas fired at the subjects.

As the researchers found out, these "physics areas" lie in the pr motor and motor area of ​​the cerebral cortex. These brain areas are responsible for planning our movements, but also process information about the movement and position of other bodies in the room. Accordingly, the physical center of our brain is located in the region responsible for our motor interaction with the outer world - physical intuition and action planning are closely linked.

The physics center of our brain (yellow-orange) is located in the motor and protoroid cortex Jason Fischer / JHU

Origin in early childhood

"We believe that this is the case because children learn physical models of the world while they are exercising their motor skills while handling objects, they learn how to behave." says Fischer. For example, when a child reaches for something, his brain has to learn and anticipate how difficult that object might be, how much power to touch and lift.

More physics is needed when learning: How much forward thrust is needed, how much is too much and leads to a fall? All of these unconscious calculations guide our physics center in the brain from childhood on and over time form our intuitive understanding of physics in everyday life. "We constantly draw physical conclusions, even if we do not deliberately think about it, " says Fischer.

As the researchers explain, the knowledge of this physics center not only reveals how and where our brain recognizes such laws, it could also help uncover hidden deficiencies in people whose motor cortex is passing through Accident or illness is damaged. At the same time, the learning and working principles of our built-in physics module could help to help robots better understand their environment. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 2016; doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1610344113)

(Johns Hopkins University, 09.08.2016 - NPO)