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Leading Irish Scientist Speaks on How the Mind Works to International Educators

Posted on 30 May 2014

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Professor in Psychology, Fiona Newell at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, whose scientific research forms part of the ILLUSION exhibition currently on display at the Reuben H.Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California, delivered a keynote address yesterday (29 May). The address is titled: “Discover How the Mind Works: Multi-sensory illusions” and was given to international educators gathered in San Diego on the occasion of their annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The ILLUSION exhibition forms part of a travelling exhibition created by Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin.

ILLUSION joins magic with psychology and optical illusions with scientific reasoning to distort the senses. Through a series of imaginative artworks, ILLUSION shows that what we perceive is often radically different from the reality of what we observe by playfully allowing visitors to experience concepts used by magicians and explored by neuroscientists.

Professor Newell is a Professor in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, where her research focuses on the processes of how humans perceive and sense the world around them. The main goal of her research is to provide a better understanding of how information is shared across the senses and to shed light on the brain processes involved in the perception of objects, faces and places across the main human sensory systems.

Her work with ILLUSSION includes the interactive installation, “Something in the Way it Moves” - a study that examines what makes moving dots look alive. The study is part of an ongoing investigation concerning the processing of visual information by the brain and the role of correlations for complexity. It invites participants to ponder how order and disorder can be distinguished.

Speaking generally about illusion and perception Professor Newell said: “It is often said that all human perception is illusory, and that the brain forms hypotheses about what it sees, hears or feels. In our everyday world, we often perceive shapes and patterns in visual images where none exist, such as seeing animal shapes in cloud formations, or familiar objects in rock formations. Illusions are a very useful tool for understanding how the brain makes sense of stimulation from the external world.”

Her relationship with Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin started with the first “Lab in the Gallery” exhibition where several members of Professor Newell’s lab moved their experiments on human perception into the Science Gallery for a couple of months. Professor Newell has since curated a number of exhibitions including “Love Lab” and “Metropolis”. With Metropolis, she investigated how realistic crowds are perceived in virtual environments, and whether virtual avatars can be designed to be more appealing.

Speaking about the interactions between our perception and our senses Professor Newell said: “In the real world, we make perceptual decisions every moment by recognising the things and people around us and knowing where they are located. These decisions are not based on one sensory system alone as all our senses can contribute to perception. However, given that over a third of our brain is devoted to processing of information from each of the senses, it is surprising that very little is known about how this ‘multisensory’ information influences what we perceive around us.”

Professor Newell has also embarked on research investigating the role of ageing on multisensory processes, including on studies designed to improve independent living for older adults with a history of falling through a large project called ‘Technology Research for Independent Living’ (TRIL).

The latest research findings from Professor Newell’s lab on the effect of ageing on perception offer important insights into the cause of loss of balance in older persons and may suggest important rehabilitative training procedures that may prevent this decline in multisensory processing. Her lab group are currently conducting an intervention study designed to improve spatial navigation performance through the use of “serious games” designed with virtual environments.

Professor Newell has published over 70 papers and chapters in many of the leading international journals and text books in psychology and neuroscience.

The ILLUSION exhibition will run in the Reuben H.Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California, until January 2015.