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Psychology research about vision and pigeons may improve driver safety, earns honors

Wednesday, July 30, 2014



MANHATTAN — Close your eyes and open them. How long does it take you to recognize the location? Now turn your head to the right. Which do you notice first: the center of the scene or the periphery?

According to new research from Kansas State University, it takes a person one-tenth of a second to identify a scene. The person processes first the central portion then rapidly expands into the visual periphery.

The research — which may improve driver safety — was the focus of two Journal of Experimental Psychology articles co-authored by Kansas State University psychology researchers Lester Loshcky, Kim Kirkpatrick and others. The American Psychological Association has cited the articles as "Particularly Exciting Experiments in Psychology."

"The Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Scene Gist Recognition," co-authored by Loschky, associate professor of psychological sciences, studied what portion of vision humans use to recognize scenes and how quickly this recognition occurs. Loschky and Kim Kirkpatrick, professor of psychological sciences, did a related study, "Scene Gist Categorization by Pigeons," which compared how pigeons view scenes versus humans. Scene gist recognition is a person's ability to rapidly recognize the most basic information in a scene.

The researchers said their work could improve driver safety because it contributes to knowledge about how a person discerns a scene and how long that process takes.

"When driving, you have to make split-second decisions and the environment can change very rapidly," Loschky said. "You may miss a pedestrian or have trouble reading a sign because these are things that come from your peripheral vision."

By knowing more about how humans process what they are seeing, the research can improve driving safety mechanisms, such as road signs and pedestrian crossing areas, Loschky said.

Loschky; Ryan Ringer, doctoral student in psychology; and Loschky's former students Adam Larson, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Findlay, and Tyler Freeman, research associate at ICF International, wanted to know how humans identify a scene — specifically which portion of our visual field is used first. They flashed images of different scenes such as a beach, mountain or kitchen. Some images showed only the center of the scene and others showed only the peripheral portion of the scene. They asked participants to identify the scene following each flash.

"We know that you can recognize the gist of a scene in less than a second," Loschky said. "In fact, you can do it essentially in the blink of an eye. What we found was at the very short flashes, people were better at identifying the pictures when they were shown the central part of the picture, and they were worse when they were shown only the peripheral section. When the flashes got longer, even just a tenth of a second, then participants were equally good at identifying the scene correctly from both perspectives."

The authors took the research further by comparing previous results with humans to pigeons.

"We know that the ancestors of humans and pigeons diverged before the age of the dinosaurs because dinosaurs are now believed to have developed from birds," Loschky said. "If both humans and pigeons have the same scene recognition ability, then it suggests either we share some common ancestor who had that ability or that evolution has independently pushed both of our species along this similar functional path even though we're so radically different from each other in most ways.”

Kirkpatrick, who worked with pigeons in her doctorate research, trained the birds to identify a scene by teaching them to peck at the screen to receive rewards. For example, if the pigeons pecked the screen when a beach appeared, they would receive food. But they would not receive food if they pecked at a mountain scene.

Kirkpatrick and Loschky, along with Tannis Bilton, a Kansas State University graduate student, and Bruce Hansen, associate professor of psychology at Colgate University, found that pigeons have the same ability as humans to recognize a scene in the blink of an eye. But a blink of an eye is longer for pigeons so it takes the birds about 10 times longer than humans to correctly identify a scene.

The researchers also investigated whether this difference was experience-based or evolutionary.

"It turns out people are a lot better at recognizing scenes from the ground than from the air," Kirkpatrick said. "If you show people a beach from an angle as though you are standing on the beach and taking the photo, the participants are really good at identifying the correct scene, but if you show them a satellite image of a beach, they're not very good at recognizing it."

The researchers tested pigeons that had never experienced flight using ground views, bird's-eye views and satellite views. The pigeons excelled at bird's-eye views and satellite views, which suggested this capability may be innate.

Kirkpatricks and Loschky's study can help understand how a person's ability to rapidly recognize scene information in the blink of an eye is based on genetic predispositions versus personal experience.


photo credit: Michele Catania via photopincc



Lester Loschky

Kim Kirkpatrick


Loschky is Losh-key

Written by

Lindsey Elliott

At a glance

Kansas State University psychology professors receive recognition for research on scene gist and how human perception compares to that of pigeons.