Magazine article Science News

Visual Skills Show Two-Pronged Development

Magazine article Science News

Visual Skills Show Two-Pronged Development

Article excerpt

A new study suggests that there's more to some visual feats than meets the eye, not to mention the brain.

Improvement in performing rapidly presented visual tasks peaks within minutes of practicing these skills and stays stable for at least eight hours after training ends. At that point, performance of the tasks gets an unexpected boost from apparently permanent brain changes sparked by the initial learning, assert two neuroscientists in the Sept. 16 NATURE.

"It's surprising that there's such a high level of plasticity in the adult brain for what we think of as hard-wired visual processes," says Avi Karni of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. "The learning of many sensory and motor skills may proceed in two stages separated by a latent period of at least several hours."

Karni conducted the research with Dov Sagi of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

In test sessions, each of nine adults watched a computer screen on which flashed a square-shaped "test" image of several hundred dashes encasing three horizontally or vertically oriented lines. A "mask" pattern then flashed on the screen, composed of randomly oriented V-shaped characters intended to interfere with visual processing of the first image. Presentation of each test and mask image took less than a second.

Participants identified the orientation of the angled lines following each presentation. Over a series of 800 to 1,200 trials per person, the researchers gradually narrowed the fleeting gap between the appearance of test images and mask patterns. Accuracy at the task rose sharply over the first several hundred trials and then leveled off.

Yet about a half day later, in the absence of intensive practice, volunteers displayed further large improvements in performing the visual task. Moreover, they retained these gains over a two- to three-year follow-up period. …

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