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Playing Tricks on the Brain!: Perception and Illusion in the Human Visual System

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

Nearly half of the human brain is devoted to vision, and even the best software engineers at Google and Microsoft can't beat a 3-year-old when it comes to object recognition. Visual perception feels automatic and effortless, and is usually so perfect that we fail to notice it. This course will look at cases where this breaks down when we fall prey to illusions. Like glitches in the Matrix, illusions can reveal the inner workings of the visual system, and more generally, teach us about how the brain solves problems in order to guide our behavior.

We will take an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together findings from the disciplines of cognitive science, experimental psychology, and neuroscience. We will learn about the visual system at all levels, from the basic building blocks of photoreceptors and neurons to high-level cognitive processes like visual attention and face perception. We will discuss methodologies used throughout brain science, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electrophysiology, and psychophysics. We will talk about how perception is used to guide action, and how many illusions can be resolved by allowing people to interact with them in appropriate ways. Finally, we will touch on how visual illusions are used in art and entertainment from painting and architecture to cinema and web design.

Throughout the course, we will draw upon both primary and secondary literature. Secondary literature includes textbook chapters and the popular press (e.g. The New York Times, Scientific American). Primary literature consists of journal articles, which form the foundation of the scientific enterprise. These articles can be challenging, and will be new to most students, so we will learn techniques to read and evaluate them, and work our way up to more difficult articles as the course progresses.

By the end of this course, you will be able to:

-Give an overview of the human visual system, from the retina to object recognition, and describe how illusions reveal its inner workings.
-Explain the differences between the different branches of brain science, and describe what each of them contributes to our understanding of the brain and behavior.
-Read and critically evaluate scientific journal articles.

There are no formal prerequisites, and no experience with the brain sciences is required. Strong language and reading comprehension skills are necessary, as we will be reading challenging journal articles. A basic understanding of biology will also be helpful.