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Probing the Mystery of the Mind

Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer


Perceptual Science Group Conducts Investigations of the Human Mind 

Imagine robots that could clean your house, find your keys, and pour your coffee.

Picture a sophisticated sensor that could detect criminal activity or accidents in real time by analyzing patterns of human activity.

You won’t find such devices at your local hardware store just yet.

Before we can build machines that perform some of the discriminating tasks of the human mind, we must understand better how the mind processes information from its environment and makes decisions. That’s where the emerging field of perceptual science comes in.

The Perceptual Science and Technology group at Rutgers includes School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) faculty from the Psychology and Computer Science Departments, the Center for Computational Biomedicine Imaging and Modeling, as well as faculty from the School of Engineering.

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Many have affiliations or appointments in the Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science (RUCCS), an umbrella organization that fosters research on the mind across disciplines in SAS.

It is a unique community of scholars that’s conducting investigations of the human mind and seeking to develop computer applications to emulate the mind’s ability to perceive and understand the world.

“Everyone wants the robot that is going to come into the house and pick up the laundry,” says Rutgers Psychology Professor Eileen Kowler. “But those robots are only going to succeed if they can take in sensory input, navigate, and recognize objects. It turns out that in a three dimensional real world, that is colossally difficult to do.”

The group has created a core curriculum for interested students, arranged seminars and conferences, and made Rutgers a hub for the federally-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeships, or IGERT programs, for graduate students.

“It’s a community of people brought together by common research goals and collaboration, which is the best kind of community to have,” Kowler added.

Perceptual science has a range of potential applications, and the research interests among faculty are quite varied. Kowler, for example studies how eye movements are planned and carried out.  Computer Science Professor Matthew Stone  explores the communicative functions of visual information such as facial expressions and gestures. Andrew Nealen, a computer science professor, focuses on computer graphics and is currently writing a book about video game design.

The group recently began reaching out to undergraduates, holding its first Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program this summer, and drawing students from Brown, Tufts and New York universities as well as other schools for a 10-week residential program in perceptual science.

The program, hosted by and administered through the RUCCS, was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense. The grant includes funds to continue the program in 2012 and 2013.


 “The feeling was that without a chance to work in a research lab, students might not appreciate a scientific career,” said Matthew Stone, a professor in the Computer Science Department and the RUCCS, who is principal investigator for the REU grant.  “This gives them a chance to see what’s involved.”

Matthew Inverso, a Rutgers psychology major who participated in the program, said the opportunity to perform research was refreshing.

“I have read a lot of research papers, and it’s exciting to be on the other side, to be the one writing those papers and making the discoveries,” he said.

Inverso's experiments this summer were designed to measure whether shapes with specific kinds of structural complexity are more difficult for people to understand. 

James Ball, a math major at Pennsylvania State University, came up with a computer application capable of playing poker.  The research came in determining how simple strategies and more sophisticated moves can be combined to contribute to good play in complex and dynamic games.

Another student focused on coming up with a computer application for creating an icon from a photograph.  David Stern said his underlying goal was to understand how the mind recognizes images.

“One of the main goals was to take an image and reduce it in size and detail to create an icon while maintaining the recognizable appearance of the (original) object,” he said. “Hopefully this will help us understand the schema into which we put objects for the purpose of recognizing them.”

One of the founders of the perceptual science community at Rutgers was the late Bela Julesz, a noted neuroscientist who studied the way the human brain perceives objects, and developed a test called the random-dot stereogram. Julesz, who died in 2003, founded and directed the university’s Laboratory of Vision Research.

“He was really one of the first to demonstrate that the visual system is flexible and powerful and a problem solving device,” Stone said.



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