James T. Townsend Lab
Department of Psychology
Consider the experience of walking outside, on a crowded street, in the town in which you live and work. As you walk, patterned light energies, reflected off the familiar objects in the environment and the faces of others on the street are projected through the optically active and inert elements of your eye, falling in a regular manner on the photoreceptor mosaic at the back of your eyes. Some portions of these patterned energies produce the psychological experience of organized, meaningful objects. Other portions of these energies remain diffusely organized as the context for the meaningful objects.
There are a variety of ways in which this organization of visual experience might proceed. The configural or gestalt portions of the visual scene may result from the specific characteristics of the form of the energies that are encoded by the visual system. The experience of an organized percept may also be due to the ways in which the information in the visual pathways is processed, as the codes for the visual inputs are passed from the retina to the LGN, VI, and successively higher levels. Finally, the experience of unitary perceptual objects in the visual scene might be due to the nature of the internal representation (the psychological evidence), as it develops over the time during which one views the scene. All of these possibilities must be considered in posing questions about configurality.
We use the term "configural" in a general way, to mean an object with a meaningful psychological unity or quality of gestalt-hood with regard to perceptual or cognitive mechanisms. We maintain our focus on configural visual percepts, but propose to broaden our view, while maintaining an interest in face perception as a compelling example of configurality. We believe our approaches will prove of some value within the comprehension of face perception as well. Understanding the psychology of compelling examples of configurality, and understanding the issues of configurality generally, requires tightly coupled theory and methodology.
1. Emotions (James Townsend, Ase Innes-Ker)
Do people process emotional expressions in a gestalt manner? How is the processing of emotions different from the processing of faces involved in, say, recognition tasks? This research seeks to understand the cognitive processing that underlies the recognition and identification of emotional expressions using the general recognition theory and double factorial research paradigms in conjunction with the stochastic modeling tools developed by this lab.
2. Face processing (James Townsend, Mario Fific, Ase Innes-Ker, Leslie Blaha)
Facial processing research investigates the cognitive processing that makes the facial gestalt perception different from analytic processing that occurs in the absences of good configuration of facial features. Facial processing also serves as a good area for implementing new research methods for modeling processing architectures as well as theoretical developments in the application of differential/information geometry to mathematical psychology. Current projects seek to understand how gestalt perception helps or hinders processing in light of changes in the facial features in a general recognition theory paradigm.
Special attention has also been given to studying the difference in processing capacity in the presence of a facial gestalt. Results thus far suggest that facial gestalts can result in super-capacity (speeds up processing) or limited capacity (slows down processing) processing effects given the nature of the processing task. These results are integral to the development of a complete definition of gestalt processing.
3. Configural Learning (James Townsend, Leslie Blaha)
This research takes configural processing in a new direction, examining the processing that underlies the development of configural or gestalt representations. Using a categorization paradigm, people can be trained to recognize a configured object within a group of nearly identical objects. Elements of stochastic processing models developed by this lab can be applied to the learning behaviors exhibited throughout the categorization task in order to model how configural learning changes the underlying perceptual processing system. In this way, we can begin to understand how people learn not only facial gestalts, but representations of all configured objects. Used in conjunction with other perceptual research paradigms within the lab (double factorial paradigm, GRT, etc.) this category learning can be used to study before and after affects on perceptual processing. This research, therefore, represents a vital artery in the larger body of research attempting to understand configural versus non-configural perception.