How is information from our different senses combined?

    • Topic: Human Biology

    • Location: Hall of Human Life

    We detect unique types of information through each of our senses. Our brains combine this information into a single experience but sometimes one sense may override another. For example, if you see an angry face while you hear an anxious voice you might think that the person sounds angry. Scientists have found that there are more neural connections between the sensory areas of children’s brains than an adult, but we do not know how this might affect the way children experience the world. We are investigating how children’s sensory integration might be different from that of adults and how this changes over time.

    In this study, people (ages 5 – 70) will be shown videos or pictures, hear sounds, and/or feel objects. Sometimes the information from each sense will match, but other times it will not. For example, while touching a circle you might see either a circle or an oval. We are interested in finding out how people of different ages experience these situations.

    We predict that younger children will more often experience one sense overriding another and that their brains will combine sensory information in ways in which adults' might not. We also predict children will gradually become more similar to adults as they age.

    This study will help us understand how our brain combines information from different senses and how one sense can influence another. What we learn may also help us better understand development disorders, such as the autism spectrum disorders. Our results may also help people develop more accessible teaching tools by optimizing multisensory interactions.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Dr. Vivian Ciaramitaro and the UMass Boston Baby Lab.


    Activities to Try in the Hall of Human Life

    Are You Good At Ignoring Distractions?

    Our brain doesn’t just have to combine information from our senses; it also has to filter distracting information out.

    Find the “Are You Paying Attention?” link station in the Time environment. Test your ability to focus on some information while ignoring distractions. How quickly and accurately can you complete the activity? Do you think this ability also might change with age?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Take Yourself for a Spin

    You feel dizzy when your senses send conflicting signals to your brain. Your eyes and feet are good at distinguishing prolonged spinning from not spinning, but your inner ear (vestibular system) is not. The tubes in your inner ear are filled with fluid that moves around as you move. When you start spinning the fluid moves one way and when you stop it moves in the other direction. This sends a confusing signal to your brain when you stop spinning – it’s the same signal your brain would get if you had started spinning in the opposite direction.

    Try testing out how your brain integrates information from your inner ears, eyes, and feet by taking yourself for a spin. In an open space with plenty of room, try spinning around in a circle five to ten times and then stop suddenly. When you stop, look at a stationary point on the wall, what happens to your vision? Does it feel like the room is still spinning? Which way does the room seem to spin? How are your inner ears influencing your eyes?

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