Benjamin Van Buren on Perception, Illusion, and Returning to New York

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which was circling around Mars, delivered one of the most striking and close-up images of this distant place that had ever been seen by earthlings. The photograph featured what looked like a human face sculpted into the surface of the planet. While many realized that the face was simply a coincidental pattern of light and shadow caught at just the right time, some took this “face on Mars” as evidence of abandoned alien civilizations and government cover-ups. 

Picture and close-up of the “face on Mars” taken by the Viking 1 orbiter

Visual perception has a difficult job. Starting from highly limited sensory input (flat, low-resolution images), it fills in gaps, adding information that was never there to begin with. Such extrapolations can provide an accurate sense of the world, or they can lead us astray. The wonders and folly of perception motivated Benjamin Van Buren, the new Assistant Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), to develop a research program concerning the precise mechanics of attention, perceptual inference, and illusion.

But how exactly does one study perception? One approach, which Van Buren favors, is psychophysics, a branch of psychology that deals with the relationships between physical stimuli and mental phenomena. Van Buren’s work maps visual inputs onto visual experiences, an approach favored by Gestalt psychologists, who discovered, for example, that how you see something moving depends dramatically on the context in which you view it.

Which dot is circling the other?

Van Buren gives the above example: Which dot is circling the other? We perceive the relationship between the two dots (i.e. which is stationary, and which as ‘orbiting’) by referring their motion to an external reference frame — either the screen or the moving background texture. The influence of background motion on the appearance of the dots strongly supports the Gestalt view of perception — that wholes take precedence over parts, and the appearance of parts depends on the wholes they are seen to comprise.

Gestalt Psychology has a long history at The New School; the first University in Exile faculty included Max Wertheimer, considered the father of Gestalt psychology, and Rudolph Arnheim. More recently, working outside the Gestalt tradition, Arien Mack, Alfred J. and Monette C Marrow Professor of Psychology, has advanced the study of perception with her research on inattentional blindness.

Van Buren’s path to NSSR began with an interest in visual aesthetic experiences. “In high school, I was always doing art-related stuff; making animations, wood carvings, and kinetic sculptures after Jean Tinguely. Then I got to college and the whole universe opened up before me,” he recalls. At the University of Pennsylvania, he followed a program in cognitive science and started working with Anjan Chatterjee on projects in neuroscience and aesthetics. “I wanted to see if it was possible to use a relatively ‘hard’ scientific approach to better understand things that seem more ineffable, like art experiences,” he says. This led him to a string of projects exploring the cognitive demands of viewing photographs of beautiful and ugly landscapes, how attention is deployed to attractive faces, and how artists’ painting styles change as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

Most recently, Van Buren has also been probing the perception of intentions. Strictly speaking, when we see somebody reach out to hold our hand, or run to catch a train, the sensory data contain nothing more than physical states and changes. But in both of these cases, we experience the action in more than merely physical terms — we see it as performed by an agent with a mind, who has beliefs and goals. As a case study, his research has focused on another strong and storied illusion, in which we reflexively see simple geometric shapes (which we know to be inanimate) as alive and goal-directed when they move in particular ways.

In the same way that we can’t help but experience other visual illusions, we can’t help but see the shapes in the above Heider and Simmel film as animate, and telling some kind of story

Van Buren explains that seeing the world in this rich way is adaptive, driven by evolutionary pressures and the demands of development. Successful interaction with the world requires seeing it in all sorts of ways that go beyond the input data. “You can conceive of perception as solving a number of different problems. And we need not always think of perception as one process; it can be understood a variety or processes that are tacked together as solutions to problems that are posed by the environment,” Van Buren says.

For the past several years, Van Buren has been investigating perception’s curious “solutions” at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate, and at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he conducted postdoctoral research. His projects have explored everything from the perception of food’s caloric content to visitors’ aesthetic experiences in art galleries. Most recently, he has been interested in the question of how and when a still photo — which, strictly speaking, corresponds to a single moment of time — is seen to represent a longer stretch of time (from a few seconds to hours).

A New York native, Van Buren is looking forward to joining the New School and leading his own laboratory, the NSSR Perception Lab. He envisions the lab as “a space where people feel encouraged to break new intellectual and methodological ground, and where they learn from one another by sharing and debating ideas.” He is also excited about potential interdisciplinary collaborations with Parsons faculty and students. “Designers spend much of their time thinking about how we see the world in order to improve our experience of our surroundings. A lot of this knowledge would be interesting to vision scientists, but communication between these fields has been fairly rare. Fortunately, The New School is known for collaborations across disciplinary boundaries and for a widespread willingness to explore new avenues of research,” he says, citing the example of Professor of Psychology Michael Schober, who conducts research on jazz musicians as they improvise. “This work moves beyond all the existing paradigms in psychology in order to answer profound questions about how people read each other’s signals and create together.”

In Fall 2019, Van Buren will be teaching two classes. In “Visual Perception and Cognition,” NSSR graduate students will survey the latest vision science, including research on the perception of color, motion, shape, material, and depth. “I want to focus on big themes, and I plan to incorporate a lot of demonstrations.” he says. In “The Psychology of Aesthetics and Design,” undergraduates will study existing literature on empirical aesthetics, design a research question, and test their hypotheses through rigorous experimentation. He hopes these projects will reflect students’ own design practices and concerns, and that through them they will also discover new ways in which empirical methods can be used to enhance creative work.