Expressing and recognizing emotion is a critical part of social interaction. While most people have no trouble discriminating extreme emotions, like exhilaration and seething rage, the facial expressions we typically encounter are more subtle, and visible for only an instant. How much about a person's internal state can we actually access in an instant? What mechanisms does the brain engage to bring fine affective distinctions to our attention? Does hearing emotional sounds change the way we see emotion?
Groups of objects and crowds of people are nearly everywhere we look. And with only a glance, we can appreciate their collective properties (e.g. How happy is the crowd, overall? Where is that flock of geese headed?). But there is a paradox about this kind of perception. Attention and memory have limited capacity, only allowing us to see and remember information about a few things at a time. How do we overcome these bottlenecks to see the gist of a scene? What mechanisms integrate and summarize lots of visual information, all at once, allowing us to appreciate a group as a collective entity?
The world is full of redundancy. Many objects and people appear strikingly similar. Yet, somehow, we understand our world in terms of distinct categories--tall or flat, happy or neutral, walking toward me or to the side, familiar or unfamiliar? This segmentation is particularly important when viewing many things at once, allowing us find the odd-ball, or the object of our search. What visual mechanisms allow us to parse lots of similar information at once, segmenting the world into distinct categories and directing our attention toward what makes each object or person unique?
What is visual experience like in childhood? Many perceptual abilities take years to develop, including distinguishing objects in time and space, filtering out distracting visual information, and even remembering what has been seen. Yet, just like adults, children must navigate crowded and cluttered environments. Is the developing visual system equipped with any mechanisms for seeing many things at once? How does the ability to see the gist develop from pre-school age to adulthood? What do children actually perceive when faced with lots of visual information all at once?
Billions of bits of information arrive at the retina every moment, but only a fraction of this information reaches our awareness. That isn't to say, however, that unseen information is lost, or unimportant. Many visual processes continue even without our awareness, influencing behavior immediately, or even days later. Which visual processes require awareness and which do not? To what extent do the mechanisms of emotion recognition operate subliminally? Determining the perceptual processes that do and do not require awareness may reveal the purpose of conscious vision.