The 'inner pickpocket' trait inside all of us lets us tell what an object is by touch alone


Scientists say the human brain’s ability to tell what an object is by touch alone means there is an ‘inner pickpocket’ trait inside all of us

  • University of Cambridge and Columbia University researchers assessed data  
  • People can identify objects they’ve never seen before just by touching them 
  • They do this by interpreting the sequence of small depressions on their fingers  

Researchers have identified how the human brain is able to determine the properties of a particular object from touch alone, a so-called inner pickpocket trait.  

This so-called inner pickpocket trait is inherent in all of us, they say, and is the reason a thief can pilfer a handbag and instantly pull out the most valuable item.   

It relies on the brain’s ability to break up a continuous stream of information and turn it into smaller chunks. 

This manifests itself for professional pickpockets as being bale to interpret the sequence of small depressions on their fingers separate  well-defined objects.

‘Notably, the participants in our study were not selected for being professional pickpockets – so these results also suggest there is a secret, statistically savvy pickpocket in all of us,’ said Professor Máté Lengyel from the University of Cambridge, who co-led the research. 

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Revealed: The brain can immediately both identify objects without the need for clear-cut boundaries or other specialised cues, and predict unknown properties of new objects (stock)

Revealed: The brain can immediately both identify objects without the need for clear-cut boundaries or other specialised cues, and predict unknown properties of new objects (stock)

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, the Central European University, and Columbia University, found a similar phenomenon allows humans to anticipate what an object in a shop window will feel like just by looking at it. 

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This involves a visual input and not a physical signal as the shopper’s visual system but works in a similar way.   

Our ability to extract distinct objects from cluttered scenes by touch or sight alone and accurately predict how they will feel based on how they look, or how they look based on how they feel, is critical to how we interact with the world.

The brain performs statistical analyses of previous experiences to immediately identify objects without the need for clear-cut boundaries or other specialised cues.

It then turns these into predictions of the new object’s properties.

‘We’re looking at how the brain takes in the continuous flow of information it receives and segments it into objects,’ said Professor Lengyel.

‘The common view is that the brain receives specialised cues: such as edges or occlusions, about where one things ends and another thing begins, but we’ve found that the brain is a really smart statistical machine: it looks for patterns and finds building blocks to construct objects.’

Professor Lengyel and his colleagues designed scenes of several abstract shapes without visible boundaries between them, and asked participants to either observe the shapes on a screen or to ‘pull’ them apart along a tear line that passed either through or between the objects.

HOW SKIN SENSES 

Our touch experiences are already processed by neurons in the skin before they reach the brain for further processing.

Researchers found that the skin actually calculates geometric data itself before sending signals to the brain.

Previously, it has been thought that far more basic information was sent.

Participants were then tested on their ability to predict the visual (how familiar did real jigsaw pieces appear compared to abstract pieces constructed from the parts of two different pieces) and haptic properties of these jigsaw pieces (how hard would it be to physically pull apart new scenes in different directions).

The researchers found that participants were able to form the correct mental image of the jigsaw pieces from just one of the inputs.    

‘These results challenge classical views on how we extract and learn about objects in our environment,’ Professor said Lengyel. 

‘Instead, we’ve show that general-purpose statistical computations known to operate in even the youngest infants are sufficiently powerful for achieving such cognitive feats.’

The results are reported in the open-access journal, eLife.



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