Stories tagged perception

It's Friday, and y'all know what that means. Yup, time for a new Science Friday video.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

This week,

"Many mammals have whiskers but not all whisk. Cats don't. Rats do. To whisk, rats use special muscles in their face to brush their whiskers against an object. From the bending bristles, rats seem to be able to decode an object's shape and texture and Mitra Hartmann, engineer at Northwestern University, wants to understand how. This week, Hartmann and colleagues published a 3D whisker model, which she says will help quantify what information the brain receives from a whisk."

Bet you didn't even know there was a contest, did you? Well there is.

Take a look at the picture below, or link to a larger version of it here. Who do you see? Now stand up and walk 15 feet from you computer and look again (or just squint your eyes). Suddenly Albert Einstein becomes Marilyn Monroe. Cognitive scientists use pictures just like this to understand how our brains perceive the things we are looking at. In the case of this picture of Einstein and Monroe, the explanation that researchers like Aude Olive at MIT have found is that our eyes pick-up sharp lines and blurry shapes differently depending on things time and distance from an object. By studying how people perceive optical illusions and hybrid images like this, researchers hope to better understand how our abilities of perception work in order to better treat cognitive disorders or to build better robots. If you're a fan of optical illusions, you can see another one in an earlier Buzz Blog post, and many more on this website.

Source: Mike Olson for Wired

Who do you see in this Hybrid Image?
Who do you see in this Hybrid Image?Courtesy Aude Olivia at MIT


Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the brainiest of them all?: A yellowbilled magpie involved in some self-reflection.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the brainiest of them all?: A yellowbilled magpie involved in some self-reflection.Courtesy Vicki and Chuck Rogers
Magpies can recognize their own reflections in a mirror, according to a new study just out in the PloS Biology journal.

The magpie is member of the Corvidae family of birds, a group that includes crows, ravens and jays, and one that’s regarded as highly intelligent.

The research involved placing colored stickers on a magpie’s body in a place not viewable by the bird. When a mirror was provided, the bird was able to see the sticker and attempted to remove it with its beak or claws.

When a black mark matching the magpie’s dark feathers was used, the bird took no notice, confirming the bird wasn’t just investigating what researchers were doing to it. And when the mirror itself was removed even the colored marks were ignored.

The study raises questions about brain development. Before this study, only mammals such as chimpanzees, orangutans - and to some extent dolphins and elephants - have shown signs of self-awareness. But unlike a mammalian brain, a bird’s brain doesn’t possess a neocortex, an area thought necessary for self-recognition.

"After finding this kind of intelligence in apes, many people thought it had developed once in one evolutionary line with humans at the end. The bird studies show it has developed at least twice,” said Dr Helmut Prior, a psychologist from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He and his colleagues used 5 magpies in the study.


Science News website
New Scientist site with video
More about the neocortex


It is the season to consider the fine points of our national pastime. Left-handers have the upper hand, in many ways. Here is the story:

"Baseball diamonds: the lefthander's best friend"

It totally is red!: Oh, man, I have to go give myself a concussion.
It totally is red!: Oh, man, I have to go give myself a concussion.Courtesy rbrwr
What a boring title for something kind of awesome.

So--synaesthesia. It's where people associate (to varying degrees) one sense with another. Like maybe a certain musical note sounds yellow, or, more frequently, certain letters will always be seen as certain colors.

Well, in this study it was revealed that color/letter synaesthetic associations aren't totally arbitrary. "A," for instance, is most often associated with the color red, "V" with purple.

What's more, there seems to be a link to how often the colors and letters are used in language. Both "A" and "red" are common in language, while "V" and "purple" are proportionately less common. Common letters and common colors are usually paired to each other, with the same going for less common letters and colors.

The brain is so weird.


Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.: Or, as the poets say, "hubba-hubba."
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.: Or, as the poets say, "hubba-hubba."Courtesy beardenb

Is there an objective standard of beauty which everyone agrees on? Or does every individual have their own definition of “beauty”? Turns out it’s a bit of both.

Researchers showed images of famous sculptures to test subjects and monitored their brains’ response. When shown images that had normal proportion, a certain part of the brain was active. When shown distorted images, that brain region was silent. This implies that our brains are hard-wired to recognize and respond to beauty.

However, when asked to judge whether an image was beautiful or ugly, a different part of the brain, one associated with learning and emotion, became active. The researchers conclude that, while our reaction to an image may be hard-wired, what we think about the image is up to us.


Race: Are We So Different?  More about the exhibit
Race: Are We So Different? More about the exhibit

The Science Museum of Minnesota will be the world premiere location of an exhibit about race and human variation called RACE: Are We So Different? on January 10th. I just finished watching the Paula Zahn NOW show on CNN tonight on Racism in America that covered many of the same topics that are discussed in the RACE exhibit, such as white privilege and the history and current status of racial preference in housing. It was interesting, and it was good to see race be openly discussed on national television.

One interesting web-based feature the show featured was a test developed by Harvard University researchers that used a series of words and images to highlight the differences between how we believe we act and think about race and how we subconsciously think about race.

Psychologists understand that people may not say what's on their minds either because they are unwilling or because they are unable to do so. For example, if asked "How much do you smoke?" a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may purposely report smoking only 2 packs a day because they are embarrassed to admit the correct number. Or, the smoker may simply not answer the question, regarding it as a private matter. (These are examples of being unwilling to report a known answer.) But it is also possible that a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may report smoking only 2 packs because they honestly believe they only smoke about 2 packs a day. (Unknowingly giving an incorrect answer is sometimes called self-deception; this illustrates being unable to give the desired answer).

The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding. The IAT measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

It’s pretty interesting research, and a pretty interesting method. I recommend checking out the web site and trying a test or two out for yourself. You may be surprised by the result, and you may not agree with it, but I think it is interesting to learn about what our unconscious automatic preferences are. The RACE exhibit at the Science Museum will, I think, do the something similar to what this test does – give us a chance to look closely at ourselves and examine how we see others.

We have posted previously of what kinds of super powers you would like science to deliver but I never saw this one listed. Wired is reporting on people who claim they gain a sort of magnetic sixth sense by having tiny rare-earth magnets implanted in their fingertips.