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Cognitive Science

Foreseeing the Future to Perceive the Present
Mark Changizi (Photo by Mark McCarty)
Foreseeing the Future to Perceive
the Present

Catching a football or maneuvering through a room full of people are seemingly simple actions. Most would agree that they require us to perceive and quickly respond to a situation, but Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science Mark Changizi argues they require something more—our ability to foresee the future.

It takes our brain nearly one-tenth of a second to translate the light that hits our retina into a visual perception of the world around us. While a neural delay of that magnitude may seem minuscule, imagine trying to catch a ball or wade through a store full of people while always perceiving the very recent (one-tenth of a second prior) past. Changizi claims the visual system has evolved to compensate for neural delays, allowing it to generate perceptions of what will occur one-tenth of a second into the future. Using his hypothesis, called “perceiving-the-present,” he was able to systematically organize and explain more than 50 types of visual illusions that occur because our brains are trying to perceive the near future.

“Illusions occur when our brains attempt to perceive the future, and those perceptions don’t match reality. There has been great success at discovering and documenting countless visual illusions. There has been considerably less success in organizing them,” says Changizi. “My research focused on systematizing these known incidents of failed future seeing into a ‘periodic table’ of illusion classes that can predict a broad pattern of the illusions we might be subject to.”

We experience countless illusions in our lifetime. The most famous are geometrical illusions—those with converging lines and a vanishing point we often see in Psychology 101 classes or in entertaining optical illusion books.

Beyond geometric, Changizi was able to identify 27 other classes of illusions. This new organization of illusions presents a range of potential applications, including more effective visual displays and enhanced visual arts. It especially may help constrain neuroscientists aiming to understand the mechanisms underlying vision, he says.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.