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What We Can Learn from Bumblebee Brains

Insects, Optical Illusions, and the Mind
Being Human

Though bees may seem distantly removed from human beings, we have more in common with these tiny insects than you might think. We have certain physiological mechanisms that cause us to see optical illusions in a particular way; and these tendencies are the result of our deep history, our evolutionary past. To understand our perception mechanisms, then, we can look at animals whose perception system is like a simplified version of our own—like bumblebees.

Like human beings, bees see color. Unlike human beings, though, a bee's environment can be completely controlled; that is, we can raise bumblebees in an environment where we know everything about the colors that they have seen. We can then see how their experience in that environment shapes the development of their brain and the behaviors that they exhibit.

This investigation of bees is one of Beau Lotto's many projects. He has created the bee matrix, a plexiglass cube with 64 flowers at one end, backlit so that Lotto's team can control the flowers' color. The team trains the bees to go to certain colors rather than others using a reward system: sugar water for some, salt water for others.

Then, the real magic happens, explains Lotto in a 2009 interview:

So what we can do is we can train them to go to, for instance, find the blue flower, except the blue flower is now under different colours of light.  So the light coming from the blue flower varies. So what they have to do is they have to use their relationships between the flowers and the surround in order to figure out which is the cracked one and what we found is that they do that. They actually encode the colour relationships so they can learn to go to the bluest flower in the array or the yellowest flower in the array. Now sometimes, a grey flower is the bluest flower if everything else is yellow so it’s actually a pretty complex thing that they’re doing and then what we can do is we can look to see how those relationships are encoded in the architecture of their brain. So the brain doesn’t do absolutes. It can’t do absolutes. There’s no point in seeing absolutes.  What it does is it encodes relationships and it’s actively encoding the relationships that matter.

So the bee’s brain is constantly comparing the colors to each other, rather than trying to see them as chromatic constants. And though humans and bumblebees have very different types of brains, they both take in the same information and come out with the same solution. If Lotto can discover how both human brains and bee brains manage this feat, then he can understand the underlying principle relevant to both. With luck and help from the bumblebees, we may even finally get an answer about how and why we see things the way we do.


photo by Ernie



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