Academics and Research

Professor examines human behavior through visual perception

Human perception is keen. We can appraise an individual in the blink of an eye and discern details about a group or a crowd at a glance. Our visual perception often guides our behavior, whether we know it or not.

Timothy Sweeny, assistant professor of psychology at DU, studies visual perception — in particular how neural and cognitive mechanisms shape what people see and hear. His goal is to understand how basic perceptual processes shape complex social and emotional behavior.

Sweeny and students in his Visual Perception, Emotion and Cognition Lab use behavioral and imaging methods to understand how the brain allows people to recognize faces and emotions quickly and how people subtly mimic the expressions of others in social interactions. Some of their current work focuses on how people see groups, and how groups change the way people behave.

“In the same way that people see and evaluate the direction of a cloud of blowing snow all at once, people can also see the gist of a crowd,” Sweeny says. “For example, in a fifth of a second, people can see a group of people and indicate where they are looking or how they feel, as an entire unit.

“We’re finding that when people see emotional groups, they also tend to reproduce the facial expressions of the people in those groups,” he continues. “The big idea here is that we might be gaining insights into how people see and act in crowds.”

Sweeny’s research interests also include autism and gaze perception. He and his students team with DU engineering professor Mohammad Mahoor and with Susan Hepburn and Eric Moody from the University of Colorado Denver to evaluate how autism influences a child’s ability to look at a face and determine where that person is looking.

“It’s well known that people with autism struggle to pay attention to—and then use—people’s eyes to infer where they are looking,” Sweeny says. “Yet gaze perception is not just about the eyes. It requires people to combine information from the eyes and the head. My colleagues and I are showing, for the first time, that people with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty combining head and eye information to infer a person’s direction of attention.”

Sweeny, who has a PhD from Northwestern University, says he is especially interested in these areas of psychology because they allow him to understand how conscious experience is rooted in the activity of the brain. “To me, this is the most fascinating and elusive challenge for neuroscientists.”

Since joining DU in 2013, Sweeny has promoted STEM education and careers to scientifically underserved groups through his Vision Science Outreach Program.

“Science education has become increasingly important, yet access to inspired scientific training and mentorship remains a privilege available only to the most fortunate of students,” he says. “We typically collaborate with schools with predominantly Hispanic/Latino or African-American students — populations that are underrepresented in physical and biological sciences.”

Sweeny began this outreach in 2010 as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley. He felt it was important to continue the work in Colorado. His team works closely with service organizations within DU, such as the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, Volunteers in Partnership and the Center for Multicultural Excellence, to connect with the community.

Visual perception is the keystone of Sweeny’s work, whether he’s in the lab, in the classroom or doing community outreach.

“Visual perception is involved in so many psychological processes,” he says. “Something as simple as determining the direction of a person’s gaze can impact the way people learn and engage in verbal communication, the way they interpret each other’s facial expressions or shift their own attention. When we make discoveries about visual perception, we also gain understanding of more complex behaviors and even the phenomenology of everyday experience.”

 

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