If you’re looking for glasses to help you see more clearly, don’t ask to borrow Ling Lin’s specs. The fifth-year cognitive sciences graduate student is looking for quite the opposite effect through the lenses of her spectacles.
As the inaugural recipient of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience’s summer fellowship, Lin spent her break studying what it’s like to see and understand the world in reverse. Wearing left-right reversing prism spectacles, what some call “upside-down glasses” or “reversing prism glasses,” she is able to see the world as if looking in a mirror.
“When we reach for something, like a pen, we first process where it is visually and then formulate an action for grasping it based on where we see it,” she says. “When wearing the glasses, however, visual input and motor output don’t correspond to one another because the pen that used to be on the right side will now appear to be on the left.”
By studying which parts of the brain kick into action when making this mental adaptation needed to retrieve something that is not where it appears to be, Lin hopes to contribute to research to help victims of strokes and other brain damage. Her research is especially useful for those who suffer from a condition called hemispatial neglect, in which there is lack of attention to or awareness of one side of space. Her aim is to use the glasses to train people to recognize the neglected space and, in time, regain some of their depleted vision.
Working with Alyssa Brewer, cognitive sciences assistant professor and expert on the applications of fMRI technology, Lin monitors study participants’ brain activity and patterns in a normal environment while performing a task, such as locating and reaching for a pen. She then monitors how brain activity changes when the same participants put on her spectacles and see everything appearing opposite of its actual location. “After time, our brains have the ability to adapt to something as dramatic as completely reversing our environment,” she says, citing a similar experiment performed in the late 1800s.
Her experiment will run through 2009.
Established in 2005, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience promotes research aimed at understanding the relationship between cognitive abilities and the neural systems that support them. The center’s 21 core faculty members use brain imaging to study attention, auditory and visual perception, motor control, learning and memory, and speech and language. The CCNS summer fellowship will be offered each year to students interested in exploring “out of the box” research.