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WIREs Cogn Sci
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People watching: visual, motor, and social processes in the perception of human movement

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Abstract Successful social behavior requires the accurate perception and interpretation of other peoples' actions. In the last decade, significant progress has been made in understanding how the human visual system analyzes bodily motion. Neurophysiological studies have identified two neural areas, the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and the premotor cortex, which play key roles in the visual perception of human movement. Patterns of neural activity in these areas are reflective of psychophysical measures of visual sensitivity to human movement. Both vary as a function of stimulus orientation and global stimulus structure. Human observers and STS responsiveness share some developmental similarities as both exhibit sensitivities that become increasingly tuned for upright, human movement. Furthermore, the observer's own visual and motor experience with an action as well as the social and emotional content of that action influence behavioral measures of visual sensitivity and patterns of neural activity in the STS and premotor cortex. Finally, dysfunction of motor processes, such as hemiplegia, and dysfunction of social processes, such as Autism, systematically impact visual sensitivity to human movement. In sum, a convergence of visual, motor, and social processes underlies our ability to perceive and interpret the actions of other people. WIREs Cogn Sci 2011 2 68–78 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.88 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Perception and Psychophysics

(a) A series of static outlines depicts the changing shape of a walking person's body with point‐lights attached to the major joints and head. (b) A point‐light walker is constructed by removing everything from each image except the point‐lights. When static, these displays are difficult to interpret. Once set in motion, typical observers readily detect the presence of a walking person. (c) When point‐light movies are inverted, visual sensitivity drops significantly. (d) The locations of the points defining a point‐light walker can be randomized within the same area. These scrambled walkers, which can be used to construct point‐light masks, contain the same local motion information as coherent walkers but lack the global structure of the human body.

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Two frames from an apparent motion display depict a woman's arm in front of and behind her head. When these two images are presented in repeated alternation, the arm appears to move straight through the woman's head along the shortest path of apparent motion even though that path is physically impossible. As the rate of alternation slows, the arm appears to move naturally around the woman's head along a longer, but physically possible, path of apparent motion.

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(a) Motion coherence detection tasks are frequently used to measure visual sensitivity to point‐light displays of human motion. In these tasks, half of the trials depict (b) a coherent point‐light walker hidden within a mask. In the other half of the trials, the starting locations of the points defining the walker are scrambled and the resulting scrambled or incoherent walker (c) is placed within a mask. Because the mask is constructed from the point‐light walker that appears within it, the individual points defining the mask and walker (whether coherent or scrambled) have identical motions.

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