A Lesson in Concentration from Bats
Some of the most incredible things our brains do are the ones we’re barely aware are happening. Like the power to focus, for instance.
Our ability to screen out all information irrelevant to the task at hand is a function of our brains that has not seen much study -- until now. New research using bats, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores that aspect of brain function.
Bats hunt by making sounds, then listening to them as they bounce back off objects. This incredible use of sonar allows them to hunt during the darkest hours -- a time when insects are off guard. To use echolocation, the bats must be able to distinguish the echoes that their vocalizations make among a field of irrelevant noise -- other bats' calls, echoes, insects, trees, aircraft and cars.
In the bat midbrain, the superior colliculus (SC) is known to play a role in collating sensory information and issuing the correct motor response, like moving away from a threatening sound or toward one that sounds like food.
Researchers played bats a series of sounds -- from natural vocalizations produced during a hunt, to white noise, and a selection of sounds ranging between the two extremes. They found that the sensorimotor neurons in the ventral region of the SC responded to all of the sounds that were played, artificial or bat-based; however, neurons in the dorsal sensory regions of the SC only responded to natural bat-produced hunting sounds. That’s what allows them to focus.
The team is confident that results of their study are relevant for the human brain, too, since our superior colliculus is already known to be involved in concentration, specifically in directing eye movements.