|InfoVis.net>Magazine>message nº 200||Published 2009-12-30|
|También disponible en Español|
The digital magazine of InfoVis.net
Most of us, when looking at our environment, have the sensation that we are seeing everything sharply. One could say the we perceive our environment in its entirety, that we see everything at once. This illusion is far from reality as we can see by just taking into account that we need to read a book by looking at each word one by one.
To see this better you just need to do a simple exercise: stare at the first word of the next paragraph (ACTIVE) and, still looking at that word, try to read the other one at the other end of the page.
Surprised? Effectively, it's not possible to read the word on the right while we are staring at the one on the left. This is due to the fact that the fovea occupies a tiny area of the retina (a circle of 0.2 mm of diameter) covering only 1% of its surface that, nevertheless, is directly connected to 50% of the visual cortex. The fovea contains a high density of photoreceptors and is responsible fot sharp vision.
On the other hand the peripheral retina (the remains of it) with 99% of the surface connects only to the remaining 50% of the visual cortex, integrating the signals of many individual cells into a limited number of neural fibers.
The result is a high visual acuity zone just in the center of the retina (the fovea) and a large peripheral vision area with very low resolution but very sensitive to movement and spatial location.
Consequently we can talk about foveal vision, the one allowing us to see sharply, that encompasses a very small solid angle (about 3º of the visual field). This obliges us to look straight at an object to see it clearly. The peripheral vision is the one that uses the peripheral retina providing very low resolution but very sensitive to movement, contrast and spatial location.
In order to overcome these severe restrictions our eyes are constantly moving in subtle "shakes" (saccadic movements) to scan our vital environment gathering information for the brain to supposedly build a mental map of our environment giving us the illusion that we "see everything in detail".
This has important implications for the creation of visualisations, graphic charts and human computer interfaces..
Until quite recently the idea was that the mental map gathered a very rich image of the surrounding world. The concept of Active Vision represents a change of paradigm since it recognises that this is only an illusion, this "map" is very poor and limited and vision is a dynamic process.
The brain uses only the fragments of visual information it strictly needs to execute its instantaneous mental activity. In reality what we store of the enviroment we are immersed in is incredibly limited and it's only thanks to the associations to past experiences that we can give it meaning and richness.
As Collin Ware explains in his very commendable book "Visual Thinking for Design", the illusion of having everything in view comes from the fact that we can extract whatever detail of the world through vision at any time just by making a movement of the eyes that is, literally, faster than thought and consciousness.
Visual thinking is a dynamic act of relation with the environment in which we use information stored in our brain and information stored in an external form (visualisations) that in Ware's words, constitutes a dance with the environment. Understanding this dance is fundamental to design effective visualisations.
Let's summarise some of the key concepts that appear in Ware's book along with their implications for design.
The act of perception is determined by two types of processes that take place along the different pathways of the visual cortex.
For a better understanding let's see the image on the right. Let's follow the arrows beginning with the letter "V" to build the word that the letters form. While we are doing it we still perceive the faces but clearly they vanish from our consciousness. On the contrary if we try to decipher the nature of each face and their facial features now what vanishes are the letters and arrows.
So, what we see depends on one hand on the patterns of light present in our retina (bottom-up) and on the specific attention the task we are pursuing demands from our brain (top-down). The bottom-up process provides neural information in several stages about the main traits of the image that the top-down processes filter making those that are not the object of our attention "vanish".
If you are in doubt look at the smart videos of dothettest website
Bottom up process
There are three basic concepts that help understand this process
The few visual objects that appear in the working memory are precisely those that respond better to the task we are trying to perform in that moment. We will see now that we say "respond" here in a literal way.
Top down process, driven by Attention
The bottom-up process can be summarised as you can observe in the attached graphic. Starting from the retinal image (a set of coloured spots that in this example correspond to a series of fruits) the processes of feature detection and pattern generation take place, ending in the elaboration of visual objects. The arrow labeled "Integration" represents the evolution of the steps of the Bottom-up process.
At the same time the complementary top-down process takes place. the signals of the bottom-up process using the current cognitive task symbolised by the arrow labeled "Attention".
Top-down processes are described in literature as linked to the concept of attention. These processes are driven by the need to accomplish a given task in each moment.
This way, if we are looking for an object with certain features (colour, oriebntation, etc) the neurons specialised in detecting those particular features will see their response increased (in fact they will send inhibiting signals to the neurons specialiised in other types of features) by the top down process, resulting in a more intense signal than the ones in charge of detecting other features.
The same happens with the generation of patterns and the fusion of them into visual objects. For example, if we are looking for a pineapple in a set of fruits (as in the graphic representation) the neurons detecting green yellow and brown will increase their signals (they will "shout" louder)
At the same time the neurons specialised in detecting orientation will reinforce their signals when they detect crossed features in the form of a rhomboid and the patterns compatible with round shapes will increase their response when detected in the image in detriment of other patterns compatible with cylinders or other non relevant shapes.
Finally only those visual objects that could resemble a reticulated spheroid with a green spot on top will appear in the working memory.
Maybe the most fascinating aspect of this is that it constitutes a dynamic process in which the working memory holds the objects during a very small time lapse with only the one needed to go on processing the attention and accepting or discarding an object in function of the task.
In the end this is a dynamic and interative process. The brain, driven by the attention towards the current task, redirects the saccadic movements of the eyes towards the more relevant parts of the image feeding back continuously the process until the objective is attained. This way if we are in a sports shop looking for a tennis ball, many round objects will show up in the working memory , but the visual system will be continuously feeding back the gaze management in order to find round, yellow and hairy objects in a dynamic way, using the contents of working memory as visual objects show up.
This explains why many times we "don't see" real objects clearly placed in our visual field, but not within our sphere of interest or attention. This is the case of the videos of the dothettest web site.
It also allows us to understand why visual atttributes (orientation lines, coloured areas, etc.) emerge as elements of attention and tend to form patterns easily associable to concepts (visual variables), hence useful in graphics.
We have intended to convey here a brief exposition of the latest advances in the cognitive study of vision. We appear to be much more limited than we believe. This should be a source of knowledge when we make representations that try to make existing information more understandable or when we intend to convey a coherent message in an easy to comprehend way
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