The exploitation of regularities in the environment by the brain

Behav Brain Sci. 2001 Aug;24(4):602-7; discussion 652-71. doi: 10.1017/s0140525x01000024.


Statistical regularities of the environment are important for learning, memory, intelligence, inductive inference, and in fact, for any area of cognitive science where an information-processing brain promotes survival by exploiting them. This has been recognised by many of those interested in cognitive function, starting with Helmholtz, Mach, and Pearson, and continuing through Craik, Tolman, Attneave, and Brunswik. In the current era, many of us have begun to show how neural mechanisms exploit the regular statistical properties of natural images. Shepard proposed that the apparent trajectory of an object when seen successively at two positions results from internalising the rules of kinematic geometry, and although kinematic geometry is not statistical in nature, this is clearly a related idea. Here it is argued that Shepard's term, "internalisation," is insufficient because it is also necessary to derive an advantage from the process. Having mechanisms selectively sensitive to the spatio-temporal patterns of excitation commonly experienced when viewing moving objects would facilitate the detection, interpolation, and extrapolation of such motions, and might explain the twisting motions that are experienced. Although Shepard's explanation in terms of Chasles' rule seems doubtful, his theory and experiments illustrate that local twisting motions are needed for the analysis of moving objects and provoke thoughts about how they might be detected.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Concept Formation / physiology*
  • Environment*
  • Humans
  • Perception / physiology*