When you reach for your morning coffee, you use your vision to guide your hand to the cup. If you miss, you might take another look to see where your hand landed and compare it to what you intended to do (pick up the cup), so that your next reach is more accurate.
However, recent research led by Dr. Christopher Striemer, associate professor in psychology, in collaboration with Drs. Jim Enns and Rob Whitwell at the University of British Columbia questions whether conscious vision (being aware of what we’re seeing to figure out where our hands need to be) is even required for this type of visual-motor learning to occur.
“Our study examined visual-motor adaptation to a pair of glasses, which shift visual input similar to what happens when we look below the surface of water from above,” says Chris. “During this simple test of eye-hand coordination, our reaches ‘learn’ to compensate for the horizontal shift in vision input from the glasses.”
Published in Cortex, the study illustrates this new theory of visual-motor learning in a person who, because of brain trauma, has none of the cortical brain equipment normally associated with seeing. Yet, the researchers found that the person still learns in a way that is similar to individuals with normal sight.
This means that this kind of learning can be done through neural routes that do not involve the classical “visual centres” of the brain. “These findings suggest that researchers have been placing too much emphasis on the conscious aspects of seeing in trying to understand visual-motor learning,” adds Chris, whose research was funded by a 2014-2019 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant.
“We have known about other neural pathways from the eye to motor regions of the brain for a while, but they have received little attention because they didn’t seem to contribute to our conscious experience of a visual world.”
Chris suggests that these results are important because they “also help us better understand the neural pathways involved in visual-motor learning in normally sighted individuals.”
“Everything we think, every emotion we have, every part of our personality, every memory we have of our lives is determined by the firing of neurons in our brain, and if you damage those neurons, you lose that function.”
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