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Volume 23 / No. 1 / 2012
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Cornell University
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Movies, Pictures, and Visual Perception

A Conversation with David J. Field and James E. Cutting, Psychology Field and Cutting
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Movies and pictures help us understand how the human visual system is organized.

SNEAD: Together, you run a perception lab in the psychology department, but you approach your individual research a bit differently. David, you use mathematical modeling as a tool for looking at pictures.

FIELD: There is an implicit belief that the human visual system is general purpose: that it can recognize and efficiently deal with any image. To understand how our visual system works and why it works, I have argued that we need to understand the statistics of the world we live in and how the visual system processes those particular statistics.

With modeling, I can simulate thousands of neurons and investigate how the population responds to a complex natural scene. I have found that this approach allows us to understand why visual neurons have their unique response properties.

I also do perceptual experiments with human observers. I believe this combination of theory and experiment provides important insights into visual processing.

TO CUTTING: But you look at movies.

CUTTING: For the last four years I’ve been studying Hollywood movies. I claim that film structures teach us about the mind. We have not evolved to watch movies; instead, movies have evolved to match our perceptual and cognitive systems. They have changed over time to match what we understand best and how we like stories organized. I study the temporal structure of the movies, how they change in time. I measure shot lengths, brightness, color, and motion and look at transitions between shots. I can make good inferences about the evolution of movies by tracking such changes and finding out how stories are told.

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