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Vision is a wonderful and splendid gift. An overwhelming sense with light, shapes, and colour. Without seeing we wouldn’t be able to have a concept of image, which is the concept that allows us precisely to recognise different objects.

Let’s be more specific – what do we mean by recognising different objects? Generally speaking, we can recognise known objects, some objects that look like other objects; or even recognise objects we have never seen before. Obviously, most of us recognise familiar objects, like we recognise pieces of fruit displayed in stalls in markets, for instance; like we recognise a watermelon, even if it was yellow and square, it would still remind us of a watermelon.

Although I must admit that I have never seen a square yellow watermelon, if I were to see one that would be the first time. We all remember when we saw something for the first time. Something new to us, something we had never seen before. For instance, seeing a monument, an exotic place, or meeting somebody special. Is the feeling of discovering something, of learning new patterns, but can we really remember seeing something for the first time?

John Hinde Butlins, Postcards

Most of us rely on visual references linked to the things we see. We can see an object, classify it, recognise and identify the specific characteristics that make it something new to us. Therefore, if I see a square yellow watermelon, could I say that it is a completely new object? Or maybe only partially new? Because, in all fairness, I know the object is a watermelon, be it yellow or some other colour.

Most of us don’t remember seeing something new for the first time; something we didn’t had any experience nor patterns before. The most recent scientific theories argue that this infantile amnesia happens because the part of the brains in charge of processing and saving the conscious memory (called hypothalamus) is constantly developing during the first years of life {1}. Some may even dare say that, at this age, our brain is registering the parameters and rules that will allow us in the future to comprehend new things, the unknown.

There is a very interesting speech in TEDxESA by Professor Danko Nikolic {2}, to which I had the honour to assist last autumn, in which he explained in very clear terms the importance of creating rules from the images we observe as a tool to understand what we see. For instance, computers are perfect in a finite, and limited universe; they are able to recognise any image provided it has been previously saved in its database. Therefore, a computer will recognise a cat more efficiently, according to the number of images saved into its database. So, what will happen if a computer detects a cat whose image is completely different to the images previously saved? I am afraid it won’t recognise it as a new cat, and let alone if it comes across a yellow watermelon. Nos, let’s focus on the recognition patters of a 4 year-old boy. The boy sees a toy car, big enough to fit in, with its wheels, steering wheel and its body work. The boy examines it closely, he recognises all the parts a car is composed of, and reaches the conclusion that it is a car. After this first and unique experience, the child is capable of recognising any other car, be it a Volkswagen beetle or a Jaguar. Wonderful, isn’t it? Nevertheless, computers perform brilliantly at chess games (and nowadays even at GO {3}.

Akihiko Miyoshi, Pigment Migrations & Suspended Refraction, 2014.

At this stage, a doubt springs to mind – what would happen if despite of having our memory and intellectual capabilities operating, we lose the patterns conceived that help us understand the world, understand the new things? I mean the patterns that we have conceived and nurtured throughout our life almost unconsciously, virtually from the day that we were born.

There is a human pathology caused by damages to a part in the brains called visual cortex, known as visual agnosia. People who suffer this pathology cannot recognise objects. However, their perception of objects and their intellect are untouched – they are capable of describing and drawing objects with all sorts of details. Their brains function in a similar way to computers – if the object has a specific characteristic that makes it brand new, the whole thing is perceived as something completely new, as if it was the first time in shape, as well as in function.

Everybody wants to see something new, something different first time round. But imagine that we lived in a world where very single novelty was so present, that it would need to be recalled every time an object will change its shape or functionality. Imagine that every single object was unique in its kind, mysterious. Then we would totally lose our references, we would be disoriented, lost. Can you imagine such a life? What about a life without recognising objects? A life where every image was brand new.

  1. Akers KG et al. Hippocampal Neurogenesis Regulates Forgetting During Adulthood and Infancy (2014) Science vol 344, pp. 598-602. LINK
  2. Danko Nikolić. How to Make Intelligent Robots That Understand the World | TEDxESA (2015) . LINK
  3. Silver D et al. Mastering the game of Go with deep neural networks and tree search (2016) Nature Vol 529, pp. 484-489 LINK
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Jofre Tenorio Laranga

I have a Degree in Biochemistry issued by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and I am a Doctor in Neuroscience by the Universidad de Valencia. I have spent almost 10 years of my life researching the intricate workings of our brain, and how it gets old. I have reached the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what you imagine, nature will always surprise you. I have worked in different research institutions in Europe, and I am currently based in Barcelona, the place where I try to approach innovation and scientific breakthroughs to society.