Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 16, 2021

Hopkins scientists apply art of miming to research on perception

By RUDY MALCOM | April 28, 2021

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COURTESY OF CHAZ FIRESTONE & PAT LITTLE

Study participants answered whether the line shown matched the orientation of the surface that Firestone mimed interacting with. 

“I don’t know if this is true — I can only speculate — but making your advisor run into a wall repeatedly is probably a nice little trick to pull as a student at Hopkins.”

These are the words of Chaz Firestone, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and director of the University’s Perception & Mind Lab. One pre-pandemic afternoon, he was spontaneously taken to the Recreation Center by then-undergrad Pat Little, who filmed him stepping over a box and colliding into a padded wall. 

Later, the two digitally removed the wall and box from the footage. As part of online experiments, 360 participants watched the clips, in which Firestone mimed interacting with the implied surface.

Afterward, a line flashed on the screen where the wall or box would have been. Participants had to respond as quickly as they could whether the line had been vertical or horizontal. Even though they had been instructed to ignore the miming, participants answered much more quickly when the line matched the orientation of the implied surface. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Firestone said that these results suggest that the mind automatically builds representations of invisible objects.

“What we think these experiments show is that when a mime mimes an object for you, it’s not just that you form an impression of what that object is. It’s that you must form an impression of what that object is,” he said. “You realize, ‘I should really ignore the actor’s behavior; it’s messing me up,’ and guess what? Even though you realize you should, you can’t.”

This month, Firestone and Little’s findings were published in Psychological Science. Little noted in an interview with The News-Letter that their results weren’t necessarily unexpected, citing the invisible box challenge. 

The challenge began in December of 2017, when Texas high school cheerleader Ariel Olivar went viral for a video in which she appeared to step on an invisible box about a foot off the ground. Inspired by Olivar, many attempted to recreate the illusion themselves. 

“You can’t just say, ‘Ah, it looks like there’s a box there. I did science’ — you have to go and actually do an experiment,” Little said. “We were not surprised but glad to see that the results of testing this on people gave us an objective sense that matched our subjective feeling of watching that video.”

Firestone elaborated on the more scientific reasons for doing the study. Perception research, he said, is often about how light bounces off objects and into our eyes. However, perception is not always as straightforward. For example, if you look at your neighbor through a slotted fence, you can get an impression of the whole person even though only parts of them are bouncing light into your eyes. 

Firestone explained that this process is similar to what happens when you see a mime pretending to be trapped in a box or pulling a rope.

“What we wanted to know in our study was whether you also become aware of objects when no light at all is hitting your eyes,” he said.

According to Firestone, his and Little’s findings could be used to inform artificial intelligence technology. For self-driving cars to replicate human’s sophisticated vision, for example, they would need to be able to infer the existence of not only directly visible objects but also invisible ones.

However, Firestone noted that these potential implications aren’t necessarily the point of the study.

“You make art because it’s beautiful and because other people will appreciate it, and that’s kind of how we think about our science. We do our science because it’s interesting and we want to share it with other people,” he said. “You could ask an artist, ‘Will your painting improve the world?’ and the artist could say, ‘Yeah, I think it will make people smile a bit more or increase their joie de vivre’ — but honestly, that’s not really the purpose of it.”

Firestone added that the study — supported by the Office of Undergraduate Research, as well as the National Science Foundation and the University’s Science of Learning Institute — is an example of undergraduate research success at Hopkins. Little was the lead author on the paper, with Firestone helping him, not vice versa. While there is nothing wrong with being a helper, Firestone said, this research is a case where a student was able to play a more active role.

Little, who is now pursuing his PhD at New York University, stressed that there are many opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in research at Hopkins that don’t involve putting stuff in beakers for somebody else.

“Not that the bulk of science stuff isn’t fun, but you spend days in lab programming things and reading papers, so it’s a rare and special day when it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s go to the gym and I’ll film you running into walls.’ It’s inherently fun,” he said. “It could be you making your advisor run into walls.”

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