Our Sense of Sight: Part 2.

How We Perceive Movement, Depth and Illusions

Experiment: Depth Perception and Illusion

Developed by Marjorie A. Murray, Ph.D.; Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer


[Teacher Guide] | [Student Guide]

To view the Teacher Guide and Student Guide, you must have the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.


[Summary] | [Background Concepts] |
[Planning and Teaching the Lab] | [References] | [Science Education Standards]


Students learn some ways to investigate visual perception and find out how to plan and conduct their own experiments.

In the "CLASS EXPERIMENT," students discover how depth perception works by testing their ability to perform motor tasks with one eye or two eyes.

In "TRY YOUR OWN EXPERIMENT," students design experiments investigating visual illusions, such as shadow vs. figure, length of lines, or apparent size. They can investigate visual attention with "minimum difference tests."

SUGGESTED TIMES for these activities: 45 minutes for introducing and discussing the activity, 45 minutes for the "Class Experiment;" and 45 minutes for Explor Time and "Try Your Own Experiment."


Our visual systems allow us to resolve fine detail, track a moving object, perceive depth, and see colors. Somehow, all these components of a visual scene merge so that we have one visual experience; for example, when we see a cat playing with a string, we interpret the scene-paws striking the string, details of claws and whiskers, the cat's paw in front of or behind the string, the colors of the cat-as a unitary visual event, even though we can attend to one or the other of these individually. How do our brains deal with such complex visual information? First, we will consider theories on the processing of motion, form, and color; then we will discuss binocular vision and perceiving depth. For a brief review of how visual information travels to the brain, see Figure 1. (For information on the cells and connections of the visual system, see Part 1 of this unit.)

Figure 1. The visual pathway. Axons from ganglion cells in the retina travel in the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus. Here they synapse with other neurons, whose axons go to neurons in the visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain. (Figure courtesy of the Society for Neuroscience, copyright by Lydia Kibiuk, 1994. http://www.sfn.org/briefings/visual_development.html)

1. Different aspects of visual information are processed in parallel pathways

One possibility for how we perceive a visual scene is that a defined series of neurons and their axons handles all information-motion, shape, and color-from a part of the visual field in a hierarchical manner. That is, a defined set of photoreceptors, other retinal cells, lateral geniculate cells, and cortical cells acts as a serial pathway for information from a block of the visual scene. This information arrives at a "master" cell or group of cells, in a visual association area of the cortex, which combines the current information with memories of previous experiences and make sense of it. In this model, pieces of the visual scene are transmitted like sections of a photograph to the brain.

However, evidence does not support this "photographic transmission" or serial pathway theory, but rather a parallel pathways model. This model states that three primary types of information-color, shape, and motion-are individually "pulled out of the visual scene and sent through three parallel pathways, beginning right in the retina. In this view, one cone receptor receives light from a small area, for example, on the face of a moving calico cat, and signals from this cone go to several intermediate retinal cells and from these to ganglion cells. Each of the ganglion cells responds to only one of the attributes-color, form, or motion-of the cat's face. The ganglion cells forward their signals to lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) cells in the thalamus that respond uniquely to that one type of information (color, form, or motion), and so on to the primary visual cortex and further cortical areas. At higher areas, the scene is put back together again, as discussed below.

Several types of evidence, both experimental and clinical, have led to the parallel processing theory. In one important type of experiment, researchers recorded electrical responses from cells in specific areas of "higher" visual cortical areas (where signals go from the primary visual cortex). Cells in an area called V5 responded only to something moving in part of the visual field, while cells in V4 responded to color. Second, clinical evidence came from patients who had selectively lost the ability to perceive one type of visual information. For example, with damage to a particular area of the cortex, a person loses all perception of motion, while still being able to identify objects and colors. (For a vivid description of this syndrome, see http://www.hhmi.org/senses ; look under "The Strange Symptoms of Blindness to Motion.") Such selective defects are called agnosias: some of these are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. The Visual Agnosias
Object agnosiaCan't name, use, or recognize real objects
Agnosia for drawingsDoesn't recognize drawn objects
ProsopagnosiaCan't recognize faces
Color agnosiaDoesn't associate a color with an object
Color anomiaCan't name colors
AchromatopsiaCan't distinguish hues
Visual spatial agnosiaLoss of stereoscopic vision
Movement agnosiaCan't see objects moving
Table modified from Kandel et al., 2000

Putting all the evidence together, researchers now describe a system that processes motion, the where system, and a system that handles shape or form, the what system. The motion or where system information seems to have its final processing station in the parietal lobe, while the shape or what system input ends up in the inferior temporal lobe. Color information is processed in a pathway that will be considered in Part 3 of this unit. Color information also appears to come to its final sensory analysis in the inferior temporal lobe, but in different cells from those for shape. From these places, messages go out to other cortical areas-to motor systems, for example. When the brain detects something moving, it coordinates bodily movements through the environment or maintains eye pursuit of a moving object.

Finally, note that the parallel processing theory is still that, a theory, and researchers disagree on how much overlap may exist in the system.

2. Higher cortical areas reassemble the visual puzzle

Although parallel visual processing seems to fragment what we see, at higher levels the puzzle is reassembled. Further, the immediate visual scene is then interpreted in light of what we know from past visual experiences and what the wiring of our brains allows. While our visual experiences usually make sense to us, we are generally unaware of the cues we are using to interpret scenes until we are challenged with unconventional pictures such as illusions. For example, when we see a friend at some distance, we recognize the person and know that this is a normal adult (or child) even though the image on the retina is much smaller than that of a person standing right next to us. We are using cues from the rest of the image, noting, for example, that the trees and buildings also appear small, and using past knowledge to realize that these cues mean distance, not a miniature world. When cues are not present, we can be fooled, as shown in Figure 2. (figure 25-6, Kandel, 2000)

Figure 2.

Illusions are a window on how the brain puts together the different aspects of visual information and integrates it with previous experiences. Illusions presented in the Teacher Guide of this unit. illustrate higher visual processing, but scientists do not yet know all the brain regions and computations involved in interpreting size, shape, and motion.

3. Perceiving depth depends on both monocular and binocular cues

Along with information on motion, shape, and color, our brains receive input that indicates both depth, the perception that different objects are different distances from us, and the related concept of stereopsis, the solidity of objects. Studies show that people have two ways of judging depth or distance: using monocular (one-eyed) information, or using binocular (two-eyed) data. Monocular cues operate at distances of around 100 feet or greater, where the retinal images seen by both eyes are almost identical. These cues include:

  1. Previous familiarity: If we know the range of sizes of people, cats, or trees, we can judge how far away they are.
  2. Occlusion: If one object partly hides another, we know that the object in front is closer.
  3. Perspective: Parallel lines such as the edges of a road, the intersections of walls and ceilings, and railroad tracks, appear to converge at a distance. The relative distances between objects in a scene with parallel lines are estimated by their positions along the converging lines.
  4. Motion parallax: As we move our heads or bodies, nearby objects appear to move more quickly than distant objects; for example, telephone poles beside the road appear to pass by much more quickly when viewed from a moving car than do buildings or trees hundreds of feet back from the road.
  5. Shadows and light: Patterns of light and dark can give an impression of depth, and bright colors tend to seem closer than dull colors.

Even though these monocular cues provide some depth vision so that the world does not look "flat" to us when we use just one eye, viewing a scene with two eyes-binocular vision-gives most people a more vivid sense of depth and of stereopsis. This is important when viewing objects closer than about 100 feet. Stereoscopic (three-dimensional) vision depends on the fact that the eyes are separated, on average, by about six centimeters, and thus get slightly different views of the same object. This means that when we fixate an object (place its image on the fovea), we can tell if another object is in front of or behind it by the difference in location of the second object's image on the two retinas. This difference in retinal position is called retinal disparity (Figure 3.) and is essential for stereoscopic vision. Experiments have shown that depth perception occurs at the level of the primary visual cortex or perhaps higher in the association cortex where individual neurons receiving input from the two retinas fire specifically when retinal disparity exists. Although scientists have located such neurons and know they are important for merging or fusing the images from the two eyes, they cannot yet fully explain how the brain accomplishes this.

Figure 3. Schematic drawing looking down onto the head of someone viewing two objects, one indicated by the letter P and the other by the large asterisk. The person is looking directly at the object at P, so its image falls onto the fovea (f in the diagram). When the person notices the other object but does not shift the direction of gaze, the image of the other object falls on different parts of the two retinas as indicated by the small asterisks on the retinas. This retinal disparity information is used by the brain to interpret depth and help produce stereoscopic vision.

4. We first scan a scene and then attend to individual features

Finally, what we see depends on what we pay attention to. Sometimes the nature of the visual scene is such that one object or feature "pops out" at us because of distinctive boundaries. If the elements of a scene are not different enough from each other, no one part gets our attention over another. Vision scientists describe two sequential processes that direct our attention: the first is a rapid scanning system that tells us if a simple property is different in one or more parts of a scene. After the initial scan, we direct our attention to individual features of the scene-color, shape, orientation, size-and compare each part with others to detect subtle differences, or we compare each with a previously known version of the scene or object. Our ability to detect a unique object in a sea of identical objects, or to recognize any differences in what appear initially to be two identical objects, depends on several factors, such as the degree of differences and previous familiarity with the objects. See Figures 3 and 4 for examples of scenes that test this ability. Students can also devise such "minimum difference" tests.


Give students background information

First, prepare students for lab activities by giving background information according to your teaching practices (e.g., lecture and discussion). Because students have no way of discovering sensory receptors or nerve pathways for themselves, they need some basic anatomical and physiological information. Teachers may choose the degree of detail and the methods of presenting the visual system based on grade level and time available.

Try using Explore Time before experimenting

Science experiments lend themselves to a "let's see what happens" atmosphere, and a good way to take advantage of this is to provide Explore Time or Brainstorming Time. Many labs benefit from Explore Time, when students are free to investigate lab supplies that are out on a table, and begin to think about how to use them in experiments. Because of their curiosity, students usually "play" with lab materials first even in a more traditional lab, so taking advantage of this natural behavior is usually successful. Explore Time can occur either before the Class Experiment or before the "Try Your Own Experiment" activity, depending on the plans of the teacher and the nature of the experiments.

To use Explore Time before the Class Experiment, set the lab supplies out on a bench before giving instructions for the experiment. Ask the students how these materials could be used to investigate the sense of sight in light of the previous lecture and discussion, then offer 10 or 15 minutes for investigating the materials. Give some basic safety precautions, then circulate among students to answer questions and encourage hypotheses. After students gain an interest in the materials and subject, lead the class into the Class Experiment with the Teacher Demonstration and help them to formulate the Lab Question. (See the accompanying Teacher Guide.)

Alternately, conduct the Class Experiment in a more traditional way, and give students Explore Time before the "Try Your Own Experiment" activity.


  1. Kandel, E.R., Schwartz, J.H., and Jessell, T.M. (Eds.) (2000). Principles of Neural Science. Fourth ed., New York: McGraw-Hill

  2. McIlwain, J.T. (1996). An Introduction to the Biology of Vision. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  3. Shepherd, G.M. (1994). Neurobiology, Third ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

WWW references:

  • http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/chvision.html

  • http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/bigeye.html

  • http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/retina.html

  • http://www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/CC/vision_background.html

  • http://www.nei.nih.gov

  • http://www.vision3D.com

  • http://www.hhmi.org/senses; see "The Strange Symptoms of Blindness to Motion"

  • http://www.visionscience.com; click on Motion Integration, then on Stereograms

  • Scientific American article on "phantom seeing and hearing, similar to phantom limb experiences http://www.sciam.com/explorations/0492melzak.html#sidebar ">phantom seeing and hearing, similar to phantom limb experiences.


    By reaching Project 2061 Benchmarks for Science Literacy, students will also fulfill many of the National Science Education Standards and individual state standards for understanding the content and applying the methods of science. Because the Benchmarks most clearly state what is expected of students, they are used here. The Benchmarks are now on-line at: http://www.project2061.org/tools/benchol/bolframe.htm

    The Benchmarks are listed by chapter, grade level, and item number; for instance, 1A, 6-8, #1 indicates Chapter 1, section A, grades 6-8, benchmark 1.

    The PROCESS OF INQUIRY used in the Visual Perception activities will help students reach the following summarized Benchmarks:

    1A, 6-8, #1
    When similar investigations give different results, the scientific challenge is to judge whether the differences are trivial or significant, and it often takes further studies to decide.

    1B, 6-8, #1
    Scientific investigations usually involve the collection of relevant evidence, the use of logical reasoning, and the application of imagination in devising hypotheses and explanations to make sense of the collected evidence.

    1B, 6-8, #2
    If more than one variable changes at the same time in an experiment, the outcome of the experiment may not be clearly attributable to any one of the variables.

    12A, 6-8, #2
    Know that hypotheses are valuable, even if they turn out not to be true.

    12A, 6-8, #3
    Know that often, different explanations can be given for the same evidence, and it is not always possible to tell which one is correct.

    12C, 3-5, #3
    Keep a notebook that describes observations made, carefully distinguishes actual observations from ideas and speculations about what was observed, and is understandable weeks or months later.

    The NEUROSCIENCE CONTENT in the Visual Perception activities and Background material will help to meet the following Benchmarks:

    5C, 6-8, #1
    All living things are composed of cells. Different body tissues and organs are made up of different kinds of cells. The cells in similar tissues and organs in other animals are similar to those in human beings. 6A, 6-8, #1
    Like other animals, human beings have body systems for the coordination of body functions.

    6C, 6-8, #1
    Organs and organ systems are composed of cells and help to provide all cells with basic needs.

    6C, 6-8 #6
    Interactions among the senses, nerves, and brain make possible the learning that enables human beings to cope with changes in their environment.

    6C, 9-12, #2
    The nervous system works by electrochemical signals in the nerves and from one nerve to the next.

    6D, 3-5, #2
    Human beings can use the memory of their past experiences to make judgments about new situations.

    6D, 6-8, #3
    Human beings can detect a tremendous range of visual and olfactory stimuli.

    6D, 6-8, #4:
    Attending closely to any one input of information usually reduces the ability to attend to others at the same time.

    6D, 9-12, #3:
    Communication between cells is required to coordinate their diverse activities.

    Send E-mail

    Get Newsletter

    Search Pages