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Scientists study how the brain understands a moving environment

21 July 2016
Sydney teams up with Utrecht on environment perception

Researchers at the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology are collaborating with scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands to work on intriguing areas of motion perception research.

The University of Sydney and Utrecht University are building on their reputation as leaders in the field of perception in dynamic environments – the study of what people do in a situation where both the environment and their own position are moving.

“How do we detect and calculate motion when we are moving ourselves?” asks Professor Frans Verstraten, the McCaughey Chair in Psychology at the University of Sydney and a former grad-student and professor at Utrecht University.

“We can do it because our brains are very good at compensating for our own movement in the world, at discounting the distortions in the projection of the world on the retina caused by our own movements.”

The research makes use of advanced facilities at the School of Psychology that enable people to be studied in a controlled environment, such as a highly immersive virtual reality laboratory or a pod looking like a space capsule – built with the help of NASA – that allows both the seated observer and what he sees to be moved.

“Essentially we are looking at how the brain works and how people behave under different conditions, which opens up multiple areas of research interest,” says Professor Verstraten.

Potential spin-offs from the research could include a surgeon being able to walk through a 3D representation of the body before performing a complex operation, or a trainee police officer being able to experience a virtual reality bank robbery where the robbers and their weapons are alarmingly lifelike, but not lethal.

The Virtual Reality environment opens up opportunities for new kinds of research with moving observers, including clinically relevant questions and solutions. Researchers in the School of Psychology are collaborating with colleagues in the Brain and Mind Centre on neuroscience and childhood development, and with the Gambling Treatment Clinic on treatments for problem gambling.

There is also commercial and outside interest in other work, such as the effectiveness of advertising or signage – do people really understand the pictograms they see at a foreign airport? – to potential treatments for phobias. “One of the questions is whether experiences in the virtual world also apply to the real world,” sayd Professor Verstraten. “So if you place an arachnophobe in a room full of virtual spiders, will they experience any benefits in the real world?”

It’s a far cry from the popular image of what psychologists do, admits Professor Verstraten. “Lots of people still think a psychology lab consists of a collection of leather couches,” he says. “A visit to our high tech labs in Sydney and Utrecht should quickly change their minds.”