Our visual system predicts the future

I am reading John Coates’s thus far excellent The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind. There are many highlights and interesting pieces, the below being one of them.

First, we do not see in real-time:

When light hits out retina, the photons must be translated into a chemical signal, and then into an electrical signal that can be carried along nerve fibers. The electrical signal must then travel to the very back of the brain, to an area called the visual cortex, and then project forward again, along two separate pathways, one processing the identity of the objects we see, the “what” stream, as some researchers call it, and the other processing the location and motion of the objects, the “where” stream. These streams must then combine to form a unified image, and only then does this stream emerge into conscious awareness. The whole process is a surprisingly slow one, taking … up to one tenth of a second. Such a delay, though brief, leaves us constantly one step behind events.

So how does our body deal with this problem? How could you catch a ball or dodge a projectile if your vision is behind time?

[T]he brains visual circuits have devised an ingenious way of helping us. The brain anticipates the actual location of the object, and moves the visual image we end up seeing to this hypothetical new location. In other words, your visual system fast forwards what you see.

Very cool concept, but how would you show this?

Neuroscientists … have recorded the visual fast-forwarding by means of an experiment investigating what is called the “flash-lag effect.” In this experiment a person is shown an object, say a blue circle, with another circle inside it, a yellow one. The small yellow circle flashes on and off, so what you see is a blue circle with a yellow circle blinking inside it. Then the blue circle with the yellow one inside starts moving around your computer screen. What you should see is a moving blue circle with a blinking yellow one inside it. But you do not. Instead you see a blue circle moving around the screen with a blinking yellow circle trailing about a quarter of an inch behind it. What is going on is this: while the blue circle is moving, your brain advances the image to its anticipated actual location, given the one-tenth-of-a-second time lag between viewing it and being aware of it. But the yellow circle, blinking on and off, cannot be anticipated, so it is not advanced. It thus appears to be left behind by the fast-forwarded blue circle.

A quick scan of the Wikipedia page on the flash-lag effect suggests there are a few competing explanations, but it’s an interesting idea all the same. It would explain that feeling of disbelief when a batter swings at and misses a ball that moves unexpectedly in the air. They would have seen it in precisely the place they swung.

The below video provides a visual illustration.

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