Seeing biological motion

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One of the more stunning examples of the resourcefulness of human vision is the ability to see 'biological motion', which was first shown [1] with an adaptation of earlier cinematic work [2]:illumination of only the joints of a walking person is enough to convey a vivid, compelling impression of human animation, although the percept collapses to a jumble of meaningless lights when the walker stands still. The information is sufficient to discriminate the sex and other details of the walker [3,4], and can be interpreted by young infants [5]. Here we measure the ability of the visual system to integrate this type of motion information over space and time, and compare this capacity with that for viewing simple translational motion. Sensitivity to biological motion increases rapidly with the number of illuminated joints, far more rapidly than for simple motion. Furthermore, this information is summed over extended temporal intervals of up to 3 seconds (eight times longer than for simple motion). The steepness of the summation curves indicates that the mechanisms that analyse biological motion do not integrate linearly over space and time with constant efficiency, as may occur for other forms of complex motion [6], but instead adapt to the nature of the stimulus.

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