Defying Conventional Thinking About the Brain

Presidential Professor Tony Ro leads a multidisciplinary research program.

When Graduate Center Presidential Professor Tony Ro (Psychology, Biology) was in high school, one of his favorite artists was M.C. Escher, the Dutch master of impossible scenes and mathematical patterns. The way the brain perceived situations that couldn’t be real — water flowing uphill, a staircase never ending its upward climb — intrigued him.
“I have always been fascinated by how the brain comes up with these perceptions; how we form this internal representation of the outside world that makes sense of what is out there,” Ro says.
Since those years, Ro has turned this interest into a multidisciplinary research program. In his lab, he and his students pick apart the way the brain takes in sensory information and forms it into a conscious perception we can react to. The research combines psychology with neuroscience, as well as other STEM fields.
“It is very interdisciplinary, not only in terms of the topic we study but the analytical tools and equipment we use,” Ro says. “We work with physicists to use MRI and computer scientists to help us analyze and collect data.”

Recently, Ro and his colleagues published a slew of articles on how the brain takes in, processes, and reacts to sensory information.
One study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, examined a strange phenomenon in which people process cues about their environment and react to them without being consciously aware they are doing it. The researchers were able to pinpoint an interaction between the prefrontal region and the posterior parietal region that is involved in this unconscious processing.
In another study, Ro looked at brain waves known as alpha oscillations. Oscillation frequency differs between people and, Ro discovered, this determines how fast their brain processes visual information. The results appear in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
A third paper, in the journal Cortex, defies conventional thinking about the brain. We are often taught that each half of the brain deals with the opposite side of the world: The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and so on. But in working with stroke patients with damage to the right half of their brain, Ro uncovered surprising results.
“We found they also had a lot of deficits in processing information on the right half of their visual field,” Ro says. “The study shows that the right half of the brain is processing information from both sides of the world, which is counter to how most people think of brain organization.”
Now Ro is focused on figuring out how certain brain oscillations are involved in binding together various pieces of sensory information to form a coherent perception.
“When we look at an object like an apple it has a color, shape, and a location in space. It has a lot of attributes that go with it, but the brain processes these things in different regions—shape in one, color in another, and so on. My lab is now looking at how these different attributes might be combined into a coherent representation.”

Photo credit: Alex Irklievski

Submitted on: MAY 15, 2019

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