Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Human Perception: A Science of Synergy

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Human Perception: A Science of Synergy

Article excerpt

This article is loosely based on an address given to the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science at their annual meeting on June 7, 2013, in honor of being named the 2013 Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award Winner.

Keywords: attention, visual perception, action, emotion, social collaboration

I was honoured to receive the 2013 Hebb Award in recognition of my research efforts in the field of human perception. My first reaction to this news was to question whether I had really been working long enough to be considered for this award. I did not consider myself in the same company as previous winners, who I saw as a really impressive lot. My second reaction was to develop weak knees when I realised this meant delivering the annual Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science lecture. When I told my wife of my apprehension, she asked, "What's the big deal? You give talks on your research all the time." My response was, "Yes, of course, but this home audience really knows!" I therefore humbly accepted this honour, with the understanding that I would deliver the talk as a summary of my research efforts over several decades. In my mind, it is still very much a work in progress. I look forward to your feedback.

I am old enough to have personally met Donald Hebb one time. But I hasten to add that I am not so old as to have counted him as a friend. He insisted on it. Let me explain. I was introduced to Professor Hebb just after coming to Dalhousie University as a newly appointed assistant professor in 1984. As I recall, he had an office that he used occasionally in his status as an Emeritus Professor, just inside the main entrance to the Department of Psychology, and not far from a steady flow of student and faculty pedestrian traffic. Richard Brown introduced me as a new hire at Dalhousie, and Professor Hebb, after saying "hello" and a few other pleasantries, leaned in and said, "Please don't be surprised if I don't say hello next time you pass by. At my age. I'm just not in the business of making new friends." "Deal," I said, as I backed out of the door. The comment took me aback at the time, but I have come to respect if for the cogence it highlighted in this aging, and yet deeply self-reflective, scholar and scientist.

The theme of this paper is that synergy-or, equivalently, interaction-is what makes the science of human perception exciting. I am referring to synergy in at least three different senses when I say this, including statistical interactions in human behavioural data, neural interactions between specialized regions in the brain, and collaborative interactions among research scientists and other scholars.

Statistical Interactions

Let me begin with statistical interactions. Among all the statistical tests that behavioural researchers have available to them, the one that is still used most frequently is the elegantly simple and straightforward t test. It answers a centrally important question for many researchers, namely, "Is there a difference between the outcomes in two conditions?" The t test was developed over 100 years ago by William Gosset, a reportedly shy and exceptionally brilliant person who worked for the Guinness Brewing Company in Dublin, Ireland. Gosset developed the test in order to solve the very practical problem of how to come to sound conclusions about differences between conditions, especially when the data in each condition were based on relatively small sample sizes. This approach to answering scientific questions by focusing on differences has led to many successes, including the development of a better-tasting pint at Guinness, one we still enjoy today. But the question "Is there a difference?" also has its limits. For example, it is not a very efficient way to answer questions about dynamical or adaptive systems, such as the human nervous system, a system that routinely changes its sensitivity to events and its processing priorities, depending on its recent history and the environment in which it finds itself. …

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