Of snakes, the pulvinar, and fear

A new paper in PNAS suggests that “Pulvinar neurons reveal neurobiological evidence of past selection for rapid detection of snakes” (from the title). I’m happy that more research is being done on the functions of the pulvinar, a structure that is fascinating. There are many interesting findings in the paper, and it’s certainly worth reading.


The problem, as usual, is not with the results but with their interpretation.Establishing selectivity to visual stimuli is challenging at best (cf. all the disputes re. faces in ventral visual cortex). Some puzzling (and to me telling) aspects of the data that the authors barely discuss are:

  • Good responses were observed to high spatial frequency stimuli (!), not just low pass images. In fact, the effect of low vs. high pass had a small effect size (given a p value that was only < .1)
  • Latency to snake pictures was fast (around 55 ms on average) but how much faster than other stimuli it was not clear (but maybe I missed this).
  • The authors suggest that they recorded from the medial pulvinar (the “associational” sector). Talking to colleagues who are familiar with the intricacies of pulvinar anatomy in several species, the  figure shown by the authors does not make this point convincingly. The authors really need to demonstrate that this is not visual pulvinar (that is, from what is shown it is not clear that they were in the medial pulvinar as described in the literature).

These are issues that can be resolved with further research. My main concern is the evolutionary conclusion of the paper.  As phrased by the authors: “Our data provide unique neuronal evidence supporting the hypothesis that snakes provided a novel selective pressure that contributed to the evolution of the primate order by way of visual modification”. This is unfortunate; I’m not a comparative neuroscientist, but without studying multiple extant species, a claim like this is clearly over-reaching.

Reference: Van Le, Q., Isbell, L. A., Matsumoto, J., Nguyen, M., Hori, E., Maior, R. S., … & Nishijo, H. (2013). Pulvinar neurons reveal neurobiological evidence of past selection for rapid detection of snakes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(47), 19000-19005.