Professor, Director of the German Primate Center - Leibniz Institute for Primate Research
Breaking the Wall of Sensory Overload. How Primate Neuroscience Reveals the Mechanisms of Our Perception
As we all know, life is a challenge. From the perspective of evolution, it is all about survival and maybe reproduction. Luckily, evolution has endowed us with, maybe not with a defective diamond, but the most complex organ that we know as of today, the brain, to help us in this task of facing this challenge. So, what do we have to do? We have to pick up information from our environment to decide how to act on it. This is not all that different from an artist, who takes a picture and renders the environment on a canvas. More technically speaking, our nervous system is at the interface between the environment that provides the surroundings and provides the information, and choosing amongst many possible actions the one that is most appropriate for survival or maybe reproduction in a given situation. Now how do we achieve this? What do we have to do? What we need are sensors, powerful sensors that pick up the information from the environment and convert that information into what we call a representation, an internal picture of our environment. Based on that internal representation, we can decide how to act. To really be good at this, we need powerful sensors. You can imagine; you can have a huge system with all the powers that you can think of, but without appropriate information about the environment it is of no use for us in terms of survival. Lets look at an example of a particularly powerful sensory system in action. I brought you a little video clip here from a real life situation of survival. If you look at this red fox here in an American National Park, it has to produce and reproduce, and it has to pick up information. It doesn’t seem to be all that much. But survival is at stake: he is very hungry; where is food? Watch his ears carefully. Something is going on. (Laughter) If you look very carefully at his snout, you see that lunch was captured, and he survived another day—thanks to enormously powerful ears that were able to hear the little rodent under many layers of snow. Now we don’t usually run around like this looking for mice, but we have very powerful sensory systems ourselves. Let me switch to the visual system from this example from audition and lets talk about us.