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Research Summary

Brenner, E, Rushton, S, Rucci, M(2014 - 2016) Moving to see: the benefits of self-motion for visual perception. ESRC. £403,251.

A long-standing question is how the brain transforms the light patterns impinging onto the retina into a meaningful world of objects and animates with which the observer can interact. While enormous progress has been made in the understanding of brain functions during the last few decades, the fundamental principles underlying the processing and extraction of visual information remain elusive. This project builds on the observation that perception has been traditionally studied in a passive manner, paying relatively little attention to the observer's motor activity during the acquisition of visual information. Yet, like other species, humans are not passively exposed to the incoming flow of sensory data. Instead, they actively seek useful information by coordinating sensory processing with motor activity. Our motivating hypothesis is that self-movement is a critical component of visual perception. Considered as a problem of simple visual geometry this hypothesis might appear counter-intuitive. Considered as an image-processing problem it might appear counter-intuitive. Considered against decades of work concerned with how the brain "compensates" for self-movement it might also appear counterintuitive. However, this hypothesis is fully plausible from a biological perspective, because more information about the scene is available when the observer moves. This was pointed out many years ago by ecological psychologists and has more recently been recognised in computer vision - where it has caused a paradigm change. We argue that the visual, motor, and proprioceptive information generated by self-movement is fundamental to visual processing.

The project brings together three laboratories from The Netherlands (Dr. Brenner at VU University in Amsterdam), the US (Dr. Rucci at Boston University), and the UK (Dr Rushton at Cardiff University), which have developed critical expertise on the analyses of different types of motor activities in humans. We will systematically investigate the mechanisms by which human observers use motor, proprioceptive and global optic flow signals to accomplish visual tasks. Elucidating the perceptual impact of motor activity is critical to advancing our knowledge of how the visual system functions. Such knowledge can also potentially guide the design of objects and environments, inform the building of machines capable of replicating human visual functions, and it may provide a scientific basis for the development of treatments of visual impairments commonly associated with abnormal motor activity in pathological conditions.