A mysterious region deep in the human brain could be where people sort through the barrage of inputs from the outside world and focus on the information most important to our behavior and survival, Princeton University researchers have found. The scientists report in the journal Science that an area of our brain called the pulvinar regulates communication between clusters of brain cells as our brain focuses on the people and objects that need our attention. Working like a switchboard operator, the pulvinar makes sure that separate areas of the visual cortex — which processes visual information — are communicating about the same external information. Without guidance from the pulvinar, an important observation such as an oncoming bus as one is crossing the street could get lost in a jumble of other stimuli.
“The transmission of behaviorally relevant information between various parts of the brain is tightly synchronized. As one brain area sends a signal about our environment, such as that a bus is approaching, another brain area is ready to receive it and respond, such as by having us cross the street faster. A persistent question in neuroscience, though, is how exactly do different brain areas synchronize so that important information isn’t lost in the other stimuli flooding our brains.
“Our study suggests that a mysterious area in the center of the brain called the pulvinar acts as a switchboard operator between areas on the brain’s surface known as the visual cortex, which processes visual information. When we pay attention to important visual information, the pulvinar makes sure that information passing between clusters of neurons is consistent and relevant to our behavior.