08. Neuroscience

How the Brain Processes Our 3D Environment

June 27, 2017

In the past decade, we’ve seen a lot of 3D trends come and go. Tech giants, for instance, introduced 3D TVs in 2010, but they were never universally embraced. Similarly, movie studios began releasing more 3D movies following the success of Avatar in 2009, but even their popularity waned.

Given that we live in a three-dimensional world, it was logical for companies to offer customers a more realistic and immersive viewing experience. But, did you know that everything we see is first recorded in our retinas in 2D?

Experiencing 3D Images

Researchers at The Ohio State University, recently conducted a study to investigate how the brain represents 3D information. In other words, they determined how different parts of the brain represent an object’s location in depth compared to its 2D location.

In the experiment, the participants viewed simple images with 3D glasses while they were in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They were asked to focus on a dot in the middle of the screen.

As they watched the dot, objects would appear in different peripheral locations: to the left, right, top, or bottom of the dot (horizontal and vertical dimensions). In addition, each object would also appear to be at a different depth relative to the dot: behind or in front (which was visible to the participants).

The fMRI was useful to show what was happening in the participants’ brains while they looked at three-dimensional images. Furthermore, the scientists could compare how activity patterns in the visual cortex differed when participants saw objects in different locations.

Processing the Image in Depth

The findings showed that as the image first enters our visual cortex, the brain mostly codes the two dimensional location. As the processing continues, however, the emphasis shifts to decoding the depth information as well. Julie Golomb, the senior author of the study, explained that it’s as if the representations are gradually being inflated from flat to 3D.

The results surprised Golomb and her team because a lot of people assume that depth information is found in the early visual areas as opposed to the later areas of the visual cortex. In addition, even though there might be individual neurons that have some depth information, they don’t seem to be organized into any pattern or map for 3D space perception.

The study is an important step towards understanding how we perceive our rich, three-dimensional environment. Scientists have already discovered that watching and playing games in 3D can stimulate your brain better than 2D versions. Perhaps this is due to the brain needing to further process and decode in depth the stimuli you are being presented.

Stimulating the Brain with 3D

Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London found that watching 3D, produced on average a 23% increase in cognitive processing and an 11% boost in reaction times. The improvements in brain function were measured after the test subjects had finished watching 3D, not while they were watching it.

These results are a stark contrast from the ones in 2D, where there was only an 11% rise in cognitive processing and a 2% increase in reaction times. So, while the benefits of 3D are still being explored, both studies suggest that watching or playing a game in 3D could add extra value to your brain.

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