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What is the Visual Brain?

By Adam Hill
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sight is the primary sense through which we perceive the world around us. This is the case as well for most of the animals on earth. Even though our sight as humans not nearly as powerful as that of a hawk or a spider, a large portion of our brains -- some say as much as half -- is involved in some way with vision. The parts of the brain that help us see objects and tell what they are, are referred to collectively as the visual brain.

Most vision takes place in the rear portion of the part of the brain called the cerebrum. This area is what is called the visual brain, and it consists of two equally important halves: the dorsal stream, and the ventral stream. The ventral stream is the lower part of the cerebral cortex between the cerebellum and the brain stem, and in technical terms is known as the inferotemporal cortex. In the ventral stream, visual data from the optic nerves is processed in a way that helps us determine the identity of what it is were are looking at. When we recognize the faces of family and friends, for example, or distinguish between a cat and a dog, this perception takes place in the ventral stream.

Damage to the ventral stream because of injury or disease results in the inability of that person to identify what an object is, although they are able to see it clearly. This condition is called visual agnosia, and may present in the elderly as part of a degenerative disease such as Alzheimer's. In some rare cases, damage occurs to the ventral stream at very young age, so the person develops without this area of the visual brain.

The dorsal stream is the part of the visual brain which perceives the location of an object. Known also as the parietal cortex, it is located near the top of the cerebral cortex, above the cerebellum, and is interconnected with the ventral stream at the very back of the brain. When we reach for an object or judge its distance from us, we are using the dorsal stream.

It also gives us the ability to perceive our visual field as a whole, the way we look at a map. When any part of this visual map moves or changes, the dorsal stream processes what this movement means. Damage to this sector of the visual brain can present as a variety of disorders, all of which are characterized by some type of inability to perceive or interact with objects.

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Discussion Comments
By Mykol — On Jun 03, 2012

When I think about the portion of our brain that judges distance perception, I think about the way alcohol impairs this part of our brain.

That is one of the biggest reasons why people who are pulled over for drunk driving are given certain depth perception tests. If they are very impaired, they will have a hard time passing these tests.

It is a very clear example of how visual perception and our brain are so closely connected. When too much alcohol affects this portion of the brain, you realize how dangerous it is for people to be on the road when they have been drinking.

By John57 — On Jun 03, 2012

My son has autism and many autistic kids are very visual. Once we understood that he learned much quicker this way, it made a difference in how he progressed in school.

I bought a book called, 'Learning With a Visual Brain in an Auditory World' which has been very helpful for us in understanding how he learns and perceives information.

I am not nearly as visual as some people are. It doesn't usually matter to me if I have visuals or not when I am learning something. It was a real eye opener for me to realize that many people have a complete opposite way of learning.

Once I began to understand this, it became easier and more enjoyable for me when working with my son.

By SarahSon — On Jun 02, 2012
@myharley - I learn best with visuals too. I was recently at a business seminar that was an intense three days of listening and learning.

The main instructor was very good at giving visual examples. First he would explain something, and even though I might not "get it," I would write it down as fast as I could.

Then he would address those people who were visual, and start drawing pictures as he was explaining the process. This is when the light bulb went off in my head and I really understood what he was saying.

I wished he would have just started off with the visual examples, but at least he was wise enough to know that many people in the room learned best visually. This also gave us the opportunity to hear the information more than once so we understood it better.

By myharley — On Jun 01, 2012

I consider myself a very visual person. Whenever I am learning something new, I learn best if I have visual examples to follow.

I know some people can pick things up just by hearing it audibly, but my learning is always faster if I can see how something is to be done. I knew that part of our brains were visual, but never realized that up to half of our brain and visual perception worked together.

Now I realize why so many people are like me, and learn best when they see it visually. It really doesn't mean someone is smarter if they don't need visuals, it is just a difference in how their brain processes the information.

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