A Moving Experience [Preview]

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

Finally, it is also known that patterns with a certain amount of regularity and repetitiveness will excite a large number of motion detectors in parallel, very much enhancing your subjective impression of motion. A small section of a display such as c is insufficient to generate noticeable motion, although the massively parallel signals from the highly repetitive patterns together produce strong illusory motion. Readers may want to conduct a few casual experiments themselves: Is the illusion any stronger with two eyes than with one? How many almondlike shapes or snakes are necessary to see them moving?

The manner in which stationary pictures work their magic to create tantalizing impressions of motion is not fully understood. We do know, however, that these stationary displays activate motion detectors in the brain. This idea has also been tested physiologically, by recording from individual neurons in two areas of the monkey brain: the primary visual cortex (V1), which receives signals from the retina (after being relayed through the thalamus), and the middle temporal area (MT) on the side of the brain, which is specialized for seeing motion. (Damage to the MT causes motion blindness, in which moving objects look like a succession of static objects—as if lit by a strobe light.)

The question is, Would static images like the rotating snakes “fool” motion-detecting neurons? The initial answer seems to be yes, as has been shown in a series of physiological experiments published in 2005 by Bevil R. Conway of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues.

Thus, by monitoring the activity of motion-detecting neurons in animals and simultaneously exploring human motion perception using cunningly contrived displays such as a, b and c, scientists are starting to understand the mechanisms in your brain that are specialized for seeing motion. From an evolutionary standpoint, this capability has been a valuable survival asset as an early warning system to attract your attention—whether to detect prey, predator or mate (all of which usually move, unlike stones and trees). Once again, illusion can be the path to understanding reality.

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