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Zooming In on the Brain's Abilities

About a year ago, Cecilia Langram flew to Paris to attend a wedding with a friend. "As soon as I stepped off the plane," she said, "I told myself, ‘This is where I'm going to do my dissertation research.'" At that time, Langram, who is a doctoral candidate in cognitive studies, wasn't even aware that some of the prominent researchers in her field-visual mental imagery-were located in Paris. She didn't know where she would stay or how she would pay for it. She just knew it would happen. Today, she is living in Paris preparing to combine her research with that of the other groups already there. And she's doing it with funding from the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research. "The agency that invited me, the principal lab, is the Université de Pierre et Marie Curie," Langram said. "But there are other research agencies and hospitals involved who will be contributing to the study." The research looks at a function of the brain that Langram calls zooming. "What I am interested in looking at is what parts of the brain are involved in imagining a familiar object and mentally observing the details of the object without actually seeing it," she explained. The term "zooming" refers to getting a mental close-up of the object. "While reading a book for TC Professor John Black's class by Harvard Professor Stephen Kosslyn, I noted a small reference he made to zooming," Langram said. "I noticed there was nothing written on the topic." After determining that Kosslyn was doing his own research on mental imagery in Paris, Langram e-mailed him about her proposed dissertation: Visual Mental Imagery: Behavioral and Functional Imaging Investigations. "He agreed it was a good dissertation topic," she said. Langram searched the Internet to find out who was doing research in cognitive neuropsychology and found that much of it was being done in France. She contacted the Association of Cognitive Researchers in Paris and arranged to meet with the secretary of that organization. "He told me who was doing what, where they were doing it and how," Langram said. "I e-mailed every single person and asked them if they wanted to help me, and if not, who could they send me to." She eventually got to what she calls "the core people" and asked to meet with them. They were so excited by her proposal that they sent her to other researchers. "Now I have the finest team of researchers in all of France helping me on this project," Langram added. "A number of research labs there have never worked together, and they are agreeing to work together on this project." All of these labs receive funding from the French government "We don't know exactly which parts of the brain will be affected," Langram noted. "Once we find out, we want to look at whether people who are known to have problems in these parts of the brain can zoom as well." She explained that two of the key components she believes comprise zooming are depth perception and spatial orientation. "By somehow helping patients with problems in these areas with their ability to zoom, we can find out more about the brain and maybe alleviate some problems in these areas." Problems Langram is looking at include spatial neglect, such as when a person can't see an entire plate of food so they only eat half of it. Another is depth perception, which can affect a person's ability to walk. She is also studying motion detection problems, which could affect a person's ability to cross a street because the continuous motion of the cars can't be encoded. Frequently, problems like these are experienced in connection with brain lesions. "Before I can understand zooming within this population, I have to understand what happens in subjects free from neurological deficits," Langram said. Langram is also interested in finding out whether people zoom in on things mentally by bringing the object closer to themselves to observe detail or by magnifying the object. "Zooming may have something to do with the technology of today," Langram noted. "The media may show you the intricacies of the mosquito by magnifying it to look at it closely. We could never see that without visual aids. Maybe our ability to engage in zooming is because of this." According to Langram, similar studies have been done by Lynn Cooper, Centennial Professor of Psychology at Columbia University. Cooper looked at the ability of subjects to visualize the rotation of a cube in their minds and then, from a selection of pictures, choose how they imagined the rotation would appear. There have also been studies done on people's ability to do other visual mental imagery techniques known as scanning and static image generation. Scanning is mentally moving one's attention from one object to another. Static image generation is pure imagination-generating an image of an object in your mind. "Imagery," she said, "is a basic form of cognition." She quoted Harvard Professor Stephen Kosslyn, with whom she is doing her research in Paris, as saying, "Imagery plays a central role in many human activities ranging from navigation to memory to creative problem solving." Information, Langram explained, is also represented as images in the brain. "Our ability to understand these images better enables us to communicate effectively," she added. "I'm sure you can see the obvious benefit this can have to educators." To begin her study, Langram is screening her subjects with the help of a Scanning Laser Ophthalomoscope, which records eye movement. Langram will use the technology to determine the strategies subjects use when viewing an object. "This is really important because it is believed that people view objects from either a global strategy or a local strategy," Langram said. Subjects who use a global strategy to view an object take in all important information immediately and do not use much eye movement to do that. She is looking for people who view things from a global strategy. "It is crucial that subjects have no eye movements inside the fMRI* when I do my planned experiments since eye movement causes a flurry of brain activation," Langram explained. "That makes it difficult for the researcher to see if the brain was activated due to a particular task or just due to simultaneous eye movements." Langram concedes that she has her work cut out for her. "There is so much we don't know," she said. "This is a new question, and the answers could provide us with a better understanding of the functioning of the brain."previous page