See Inside October/November 2007

Skewed Vision

Seeing things clearly, new evidence suggests, may be even harder than we thought

My grade school in Spain had a color-coded system for test scores: "A" was red, "B" was blue, "C" was green and "F" was brown. So the color distribution in your academic chart revealed at a glance how well you were doing in your various classes. One result of this system was that red and brown became, respectively, my favorite and least favorite colors as a child.

This story is one of many examples of how an essentially neutral visual stimulus (the color red in this case) may become associated with a reward value (a good grade). From this information it is easy to predict that neurons in the brain's reward-processing system--a network of areas connecting the "thinking" cortex to the emotional centers in the brain's limbic system--may be activated by the physical properties of those sensory stimuli that come to be associated with rewards. We learn to associate certain stimuli with positive feedback; thus, my brain's reward centers learned to react happily to red.

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