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Optimized Perception in the Twilight Zone

Summary: A new study reveals our brains process weak visual stimuli better in the evenings and mornings than during daylight hours. Researchers say the transition from light to dark has greater influence on visual perception than previously believed.

Source: Goethe University Frankfurt.

In the pre-industrial age, twilight was a dangerous time for humans since they were at risk of encountering nocturnal predators. Anyone still able to recognise things despite the weak light was at a clear evolutionary advantage. As neuroscientists at Goethe University Frankfurt have now discovered, the human brain prepares for dawn and dusk by shutting down resting activity in the visual cortex at these times so that weak visual stimuli do not disappear in the brain’s background noise.

The transition from night to day, light and dark, has a greater influence on perception that we realise. The time of day has a particularly significant impact on the quality of visual signals around us. In the course of evolution, our visual system has adapted perfectly to light conditions during the day. It has, however, also developed a strategy for twilight: Evidently it allows our inner clock to predict these periods and prepare our visual system for times when the quality of visual signals deteriorates.

“Whilst the cogs of our inner clock have already been studied in depth, it was not known to date which mechanism optimises visual perception at times when poor signal quality can be expected,” explains Dr. Christian Kell from the Brain Imaging Center of Goethe University Frankfurt. That is why Lorenzo Cordani, his doctoral researcher, examined how 14 healthy test persons reacted to visual stimuli at six different times of the day in the framework of a complex fMRI study.

The main idea of the study was to relate the perception of sensory signals to the brain’s resting activity. There is namely a certain “background noise” in the brain even in the complete absence of external stimuli. The international team led by Christian Kell, Lorenzo Cordani and Joerg Stehle was able to show that the body independently downregulates resting activity in the sensory areas during dawn and dusk. The more resting activity was reduced, the better the test persons were able to perceive weak visual signals when measured afterwards.

brain

a) The variance in resting activity decreases significantly during twilight in the brain areas shown. The variance describes the change in brain activity during measurement. (1) visual, (2-4) somatosensory and (5) auditory cerebral cortex. b) The variance in resting activity — shown here in the visual cortex by way of example – is reduced at 8:00 and 20:00 in comparison to other times of the day. c) Parallel to a reduction in the variance in resting activity, weak visual stimuli are more easily detected during twilight under the same light conditions. The test persons miss less visual stimuli at 8:00 and 20:00. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to GU.

This means that humans can perceive weak visual stimuli during dawn and dusk better than at other times of the day. In other words: During twilight, the signal-to-noise ratio in the sensory areas of the brain improves. Since resting activity during twilight decreases not only in the visual but also in the auditory and somatosensory regions of the brain, the researchers assume that perception sharpens not only in the visual system. An earlier study already showed that weak auditory stimuli during twilight were perceived better. The mechanism now discovered, which was published in the latest issue of Nature Communications, could therefore represent a key evolutionary advantage that ensured survival in the pre-industrial era.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Christian Kell – Goethe University Frankfurt
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to GU.
Original Research: Open access research for “Endogenous modulation of human visual cortex activity improves perception at twilight” by Lorenzo Cordani, Enzo Tagliazucchi, Céline Vetter, Christian Hassemer, Till Roenneberg, Jörg H. Stehle & Christian A. Kell in Nature Communications. Published April 10 2018,
doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03660-8

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Goethe University Frankfurt “Optimized Perception in the Twilight Zone.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 10 April 2018.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/visual-perception-morning-8752/>.
Goethe University Frankfurt (2018, April 10). Optimized Perception in the Twilight Zone. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved April 10, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/visual-perception-morning-8752/
Goethe University Frankfurt “Optimized Perception in the Twilight Zone.” http://neurosciencenews.com/visual-perception-morning-8752/ (accessed April 10, 2018).

Abstract

Endogenous modulation of human visual cortex activity improves perception at twilight

Perception, particularly in the visual domain, is drastically influenced by rhythmic changes in ambient lighting conditions. Anticipation of daylight changes by the circadian system is critical for survival. However, the neural bases of time-of-day-dependent modulation in human perception are not yet understood. We used fMRI to study brain dynamics during resting-state and close-to-threshold visual perception repeatedly at six times of the day. Here we report that resting-state signal variance drops endogenously at times coinciding with dawn and dusk, notably in sensory cortices only. In parallel, perception-related signal variance in visual cortices decreases and correlates negatively with detection performance, identifying an anticipatory mechanism that compensates for the deteriorated visual signal quality at dawn and dusk. Generally, our findings imply that decreases in spontaneous neural activity improve close-to-threshold perception.

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