A Moving Experience [Preview]

How the eyes can see movement where it does not exist
Wired for Motion

How is a motion-detecting neuron in the brain “wired up” to detect the direction of motion? Each such neuron or detector receives signals from its receptive field: a patch of retina (the light-sensing layer of tissue at the back of the eyes). When activated, a cluster of receptors in, say, the left side of the receptive field sends a signal to the motion detector, but the signal is too weak to activate the cell by itself. The adjacent cluster of retinal receptors on the right side of the receptive field also sends a signal to the same cell if stimulated—but, again, the signal is too weak on its own.

Now imagine that a “delay loop” is inserted between the first patch and the motion-detecting neuron but not between the second (right) patch and the same neuron. If the target moves rightward in the receptive field, the activity from the second patch of retina will arrive at the motion-detecting neuron at the same time as the delayed signal from the left patch. The two signals together will stimulate the neuron adequately for it to fire. Such an arrangement, akin to an AND gate, requires the circuit to include a delay loop and ensures direction as well as velocity specificity.

But this is only part of the story. In addition, we have to assume that for some reason we have yet to understand, stationary displays such as a and b produce differential activation within the motion receptive field, thereby resulting in spurious activation of motion neurons. The peculiar stepwise arrangement of edges—the variation in luminance and contrast—in each subregion of the image, combined with the fact that even when you fixate steadily your eyes are making ever so tiny movements, may be critical for artificially activating motion detectors. The net result is that your brain is fooled into seeing motion in a static display.

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