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 »