Posted on 26 January, 2008 by Ed Yong
Compare a photo of yourself all cleaned up for a night out with another one first thing the next morning, and you’ll begin to appreciate the problems that people working on face recognition software encounter.
While some unfeasibly lucky people look great from all angles, most of us have to contend with a lottery of lighting conditions, odd angles, stupid expressions, stupider poses and the ravages of age. Faced with this unavoidable variability, it’s no wonder that automatic software flounder when tasked with comparing images to stock photos, like those in passports.
Now, Rob Jenkins and Mike Burton from the University of Glasgow have beaten the problem by creating a face recognition system that, so far, has proved to be 100% accurate. This level of accuracy is unheard of in the technological world. It is matched only by that most sophisticated of computers – the human brain – and indeed, it’s the brain that provided Jenkins and Burton with the inspiration for their method.
Filed under: Psychology, Technology | Tagged: face recognition, faces, photographs, science, Technology | 5 Comments »
Posted on 5 January, 2008 by Ed Yong
From an animal’s point of view, the most important things in the world around it are arguably other animals. They provide mates, food, danger and companionship, so as an animal gazes upon its surroundings, it pays for it to be able to accurately discern the movements of other animals. Humans are no exception and new research shows that we are so attuned to biological motion that babies just two days old are drawn to extremely simple abstract animations of walking animals.
Animals move with a restrained fluidity that makes them stand out from inanimate objects. Compared to a speeding train or a falling pencil, animals show far greater flexibility of movement but most are nonetheless constrained by some form of rigid skeleton. That gives our visual system something to latch on to.
In 1973, Swedish scientist Gunnar Johansson demonstrated this to great effect by showing that a few points of light placed at the joints of a moving animal to simulate its gait. When we see these sparse animations, we see them for what they represent almost instantaneously.
Don’t believe me? Just look at this human walker from Nikolaus Troje’s BioMotion Lab website. With just fifteen white dots, you can not only simulate a walking adult, but you can also tell if it’s male or female, happy or sad, nervous or relaxed. Movement is the key to the illusion – any single static frame merely looks like a random collection of unconnected dots. But once they start to move in time, the brain performs an amazing feat of processing that extract the image of a human from the random dots.
Filed under: Animal behaviour, Animal movement, Being human, Child development, Mind and Brain, Neuroscience, Psychology | Tagged: babies, biological motion, innate, instinct, movement, predispositions, science | 2 Comments »
Posted on 13 December, 2007 by Ed Yong
In The Matrix, when an agent first shoots at Neo, his perception of time slows down, allowing him to see and avoid oncoming bullets. In the real world, almost all of us have experienced moments of crisis when time seems to slow to a crawl, be it a crashing car, an incoming fist, or a falling valuable.
Now, a trio of scientists has shown that this effect is an illusion. When danger looms, we don’t actually experience events in slow motion. Instead, our brains just remember time moving more slowly after the event has passed.
Chess Stetson, Matthew Fiesta and David Eagleman demonstrated the illusion by putting a group of volunteers through 150 terrifying feet of free-fall. They wanted to see if the fearful plummet allowed them to successfully complete a task that was only possible if time actually moved more slowly to their eyes.
Filed under: Learning and memory, Mind and Brain, Perception, Psychology | Tagged: , Perception, science, slow motion, slow time, time | 16 Comments »
Posted on 7 December, 2007 by Ed Yong
For all the millions that are poured into electoral campaigns, a voter’s choice can be influenced by the subtlest of signals. Israeli scientists have found that even subliminal exposure to national flags can shift a person’s political views and even who they vote for. They managed to affect the attitudes of volunteers to the Israeli-Palestine conflict by showing them the Israeli flag for just 16 thousandths of a second, barely long enough for the image to consciously register.
These results are stunning – even for people right in the middle of the one of the modern age’s most deep-rooted conflicts, the subconscious sight of a flag drew their sympathies towards the political centre.
Filed under: Being human, Mind and Brain, Psychology | Tagged: flags, Israel, Israeli-Palestine conflict, Palestine, subconscious, subliminal, symbols | 3 Comments »
Posted on 21 November, 2007 by Ed Yong
Is beauty simply in the eye of the beholder, or do all the beholders’ brains have something in common? Is there an objective side to beauty? Plato certainly seemed to think so. His view was that beauty was an inherent property that all beautiful objects possess, irrespective of whether someone likes it or not.
To him, beauty in the world stemmed from an ideal version of Beauty that real objects can only aspire to. A biologist might instead suggest that the objective side of beauty stems from built-in predispositions for certain features, colours, shapes or proportions.
The opposing view is that art is a fully subjective enterprise and our preferences are shaped by our values and experiences. The real answer is likely to lie somewhere in the middle – after all, art students learn basic common skills such as proportion, perspective and symmetry before embarking on their own stylistic journeys.
Artists, critics and gallery visitors can argue about this question all they like, but some clearer answers have now emerged from three researchers in Italy, arguably the home of the some of the world’s most beautiful art. Cinzia Di Dio, Emiliano Macaluso and Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma have brought the tools of the modern neuroscientist into the debate.
Filed under: Art, Culture, Mind and Brain, Neuroscience, Psychology, The Brain | Tagged: , amygdala, beauty, golden ratio, insula, objectivity, sculpture | 4 Comments »
Posted on 3 November, 2007 by Ed Yong
Your brain has an amazing ability to predict the future. For example, if you see someone reach for a chocolate, you can guess that they’re likely to pick it up, put it in their mouths and eat it. Like most people, you have a talent for understanding the goal of an action while you see it being performed – in this case, you know that reaching for the chocolate is only a step towards eating it.
That may not sound very impressive, but as with many mental skills, it’s only apparent how complicated it is when you see people who can’t do it.
Autistic people, for example, find it incredibly difficult to relate to other people and this may, in part, be because they can’t understand the why of someone else’s actions. While a typical child would understand that a mother holding her hands out is readying for a hug, an autistic child might be baffled by the gesture.
Now, a new study by Luigi Cattaneo, Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues suggests that autistic people find it difficult to understand the purpose of an act because they cannot string together different actions into a coherent whole. And underlying this problem is a special group of nerve cells called mirror neurons.
Filed under: Mind and Brain, Neurons, Neuroscience, Psychology, The Brain | Tagged: , action chains, autism, mirror neurons | 2 Comments »
Posted on 24 October, 2007 by Ed Yong
In 1979, a crucified Eric Idle advised movie-goers to always look on the bright side of life. It seems that he needn’t have bothered. Psychological experiments have consistently shown that as a species, our minds are awash with a pervasive optimism.
We expect our future successes to overpower our past ones. Compared to an imaginary Joe Bloggs, we deem ourselves likely to live longer, more likely to have a successful career and less likely to suffer divorce or ill health. Even the most cynical of minds had a tendency for making similar, overconfident predictions.
Now, Tali Sharot and colleagues form New York University have pinpointed a neural circuit in the brain that generates this glass-half-full outlook.
Filed under: Mind and Brain, Neuroscience, Personality traits, The Brain | Tagged: amygdala, fMRI, optimism, rostral anterior cingulate cortex | 3 Comments »
Posted on 1 October, 2007 by Ed Yong
As a species, we value fair play. We’re like it so much that we’re willing to eschew material gains in order to punish cheaters who behave unjustly. Psychological games have set these maxims in stone, but new research shows us for the first time, that this sense of justice is, to a large extent, influenced by our genes.
When it comes to demonstating our innate preference for fair play, psychologists turn to the ‘Ultimatum Game‘, where two players bargain over a pot of money. The ‘proposer’ suggests how the money should be divided and the ‘receiver’ can accept of refuse the deal. If they refuse, neither player gets anything and there is no room for negotiation. In a completely rational setting, the proposer should offer the receiver as little as possible, and the receiver should take it – after all, a very little money is better than none at all.
Of course, that’s not what happens. Receivers typically abhor unfair offers and would rather that both parties receive no money than accept a patronisingly tiny amount. Across most Western countries, proposers usually offer the receivers something between 40% and 50% of the takings. Any offers under 10% are almost always rejected.
The uniformity of responses across Western countries suggests that culture has a strong effect on how people play the game, but until now, no one had looked to see how strongly genes asserted their influence. Bjorn Wallace and colleagues from the Stockholm School of Economics decided to do just that, and they used the classic experiment for working out heritability – the twin study.
Filed under: Being human, Mind and Brain, Personality traits, Psychology | Tagged: behaviour, Co-operation, economics, genes, heritability, justice, twin studies, ultimatum game, unfairness | 2 Comments »
Posted on 21 September, 2007 by Ed Yong
Everybody, apparently, needs good neighbours, but in many parts of the world, your neighbours can be your worst enemy. In the past century, more than 100 million people have lost their lives to violent conflicts. Most of these were fought between groups of people living physically side by side, but separated by culture or ethnicity.
Now, May Lim and colleagues from the New England Complex Systems Institute have developed a mathematical model that can predict where such conflicts by looking at how different groups are spread out in a given area.
According to their research, violence is most likely to erupt in areas with poorly-defined boundaries between large and culturally different groups. Their model predicted areas of ethnic violence in both India and Yugoslavia with uncanny accuracy, and Lim hopes that it will help policymakers to look at the problem of violent conflicts with a scientific eye.
Filed under: Being human, Culture, Psychology, Science & society | Tagged: conflict, cultural violence, ethnic violence, population structures, violence | 2 Comments »
Posted on 27 August, 2007 by Ed Yong
Using virtual reality illusions, two groups of scientists have managed to simulate out-of-body experiences in the lab – by convincing volunteers that they were actually sitting or standing outside of their own bodies, watching themselves from behind. These studies can tell us a lot about our own self-consciousness.
The idea of an out-of-body experiences seems strange and hokey – certainly not one that would grace one of the world’s top scientific journals. So it may seem surprising it cropped up in not one, but two papers in Science this week.
Out-of-body experiences are rare and can be caused by epileptic fits, neurological conditions such as strokes and heavy drug abuse. Clearly, they are triggered when something goes wrong in our brains. And as usual for the brain, something going wrong can tell us a lot about what happens the rest of the time.
Simply put, if we very rarely have an out-of-body experience, why is it that for the most part we have ‘in-body’ experiences? It’s such a fundamental part of our lives that we often take it for granted, but there must be some mental process that ensures that our perceptions of ‘self’ are confined to our own bodies. What is it?
Two groups of scientists have taken steps to answering these questions using illusion and deception. They managed to experimentally induce mild out-of-body experiences in healthy volunteers, by using virtual reality headsets to fool people into projecting themselves into a virtual body.
Filed under: Being human, Mind and Brain, Neuroscience, Psychology, The Brain | 6 Comments »