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Joe Atkins: Revisiting George Berkeley

[ photo: Joe Atkins ]

Revisiting George Berkeley

Cognitive scientist Joe Atkins, class of 1997, made a significant contribution to vision theory, designing a series of innovative experiments to test a 300-year-old hypothesis. In 1709, George Berkeley published An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision in which he hypothesized that visual perceptions are derived from other perceptions, such as perceptions we obtain from touch (also known as haptic information). "Our visual perceptions of the world are 'informed' by our physical interactions with the world," explains Atkins. "In the natural world, an object is as large as touch confirms it to be; thus visual percepts can be calibrated, so to speak, to produce reliable judgments based on direct haptic interactions with the world." But for 300 years, scientists had no way of testing Berkeley's hypothesis because there was no way to tease apart the individual contributions of vision and touch to perception. Using Virtual Reality, Atkins designed a series of experiments to measure human perception in instances where visual cues and haptic information are in conflict, and proved that Berkeley's assertion that "touch educates vision" is in fact accurate.

Vision Research, 2001
Photo credit: Simon Craven '05