Your Brain Can Predict How Objects Move
By Moira Bell
Imagine a glass full of water that’s too close to the edge of a table or a stack of toys in your room with one action figure dangling precariously. You would immediately feel the need to reposition these objects before one fell to the ground, right? According to a recently published study, this is no accident. Scientists have found areas of the brain that become active when people predict how objects move in the world based on physical laws.
To find out exactly where these physics simulations are occurring in the brain, scientists asked 12 people to watch a series of videos featuring an unsteady block tower. Some participants had to answer questions based on visual information alone, such as how many blocks were blue and how many blocks were yellow. Meanwhile, other participants were asked to predict which way the blocks would fall if the tower collapsed.
Several areas of the brain were active, according to scans, when participants had to predict the occurrence of physical events. These same areas of the brain also lit up on the scan when people passively watched a video of rolling and colliding objects.
Physics on the Brain
Found in the premotor cortex and the supplementary motor area of the brain, the areas that were active during these experiments are thought to be involved in planning actions, such as reaching to grab a pen. The results of this study suggest that physics intuition and action planning are closely linked in the brain. “We believe this might be because infants learn physics models of the world as they hone their motor skills, handling objects to learn how they behave,” said Jason Fischer, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study. For example, babies first learn that objects have to be touching to have any physical effects on each other. Next they learn that an object has to be on top of another to be supported by it. Then they learn about an object’s center of mass and other important properties.
Humans are not the only animals that rely on their brains to quickly calculate physics equations. And, according to Fischer, it may be even more important to animals than it is to us, as they need to know what surfaces they can jump onto that can support them.
Hopefully this makes you feel a little bit better about taking Physics. Or maybe you’ll just feel slightly more inclined to challenge your cat to a game of Jenga.
- What are some other examples of how your body knows what to do without you thinking about it?
- What do the results of this study teach us about the brain?