June 11, 2009

A lab report — taken from the headlines

By Randy Hodgins

Remember when President Bush had to duck to avoid a shoe thrown by an angry Iraqi journalist? (If not — here’s a You Tube refresher). At the same time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki didn’t flinch at all. Why the difference? Turns out that in the split second the shoe was in the air, the President’s brain calculated it as a threat, while the Prime Minister’s brain realized the shoe was not aimed at him, and the two men reacted accordingly.

UW neuroscientists believe we have a “dual vision” system that allows our brain to instantly determine the trajectory of an object, whether it poses peril, and take decisive action — all in a flash. This is the same system that explains how baseball hitters know when to bail out of the batter’s box and when to hang in, even when a pitch is far inside. It all happens in a fraction of a second — faster than the eyes and conscious mind can process.

UW researchers are using the data to better our understanding of how humans process an overwhelming amount of sensory information — and how our brains react — even before a conscious thought is formed — to protect us from harm.

You can read more about the UW research here — perhaps during a sunny afternoon taking in a game at Safeco Field.

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