MIT Study Finds Brain Can Identify Images Seen for Just 13 Milliseconds

Posted on January 20, 2014

A new study by MIT neuroscientists has found that the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds. This is much faster than 100 milliseconds suggested by previous studies. Participants in the study were asked to look for a particular type of image, such as a picnic or a smiling, as they viewed a series of six or 12 images. The images were presented between just 13 and 80 milliseconds.

An example of the images shared in the experiment can be found here.

Mary Potter, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and senior author of the study, said in the announcement, "The fact that you can do that at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find concepts. That's what the brain is doing all day long - trying to understand what we're looking at."

In the study Potter and her colleagues gradually increased the speeds the images were shown until the results were no better than if subjects were guessing. The researchers were expecting a decline at 50 milliseconds, but were surprised subjects continued to perform better than chance at faster and faster speeds.
However, the MIT team found that although overall performance declined, subjects continued to perform better than chance as the researchers dropped the image exposure time from 80 milliseconds to 53 milliseconds, then 40 milliseconds, then 27, and finally 13 - the fastest possible rate with the computer monitor being used.
The researchers note that a 2001 study from researchers at the University of Parma and the University of St. Andrews found neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that respond to specific types of imagery (such as faces) could be activated when arget images were resented for only 14 milliseconds in a rapid sequence.