• Wed, Oct 8 2008

Reading the Body’s Subtle Cues

Researchers at Rutgers University in Newark are studying how our visual system interprets the intent of subtle physical movements. Today’s PhysOrg quotes the leader of the research, Dr. Maggie Shiffrar, professor of psychology:

Almost all people possess some autistic tendencies, explains Shiffrar, but her research shows that those with the fewest autistic tendencies “are best at detecting the weak signals provided by body movement.” Thus, people with very few autistic tendencies are the best at interpreting emotion from body movement.

Working with test participants under a $750,000 grant from the Simons Foundation, Shiffrar has discovered that people with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to view other people and objects alike. It is as if they view the world through a lens devoid of emotion.

People and objects appear to hold the same level of significance.

People with few autistic tendencies, on the other hand, have visual systems that analyze human movement and the movement of objects differently. As a result, when presented with limited information they find it easier to identify people over objects.

At her Research on Autism at Rutgers (ROAR) lab, Shiffrar is videotaping people’s body movements. Lights are attached to the major joints; lights are also attached to objects (a moving tractor, a dog) and research participants are then shown only the movement of the lights:

Those with ASD tend to identify people and objects with an equal rate of accuracy, while those with few autistic tendencies are much better at identifying people and less able to identify objects from point-of-light representations.

“The way people move their bodies tell us volumes about their actions, intentions and emotions. To interact well with others, we need to be able to perceive this all accurately,” says Shiffrar. “What we hope to determine through our research is whether people with ASD have trouble perceiving human movement because they avoid human contact in order to function, or if it is their visual system that is treating people as objects.”

Shiffrar’s research is funded by a $400,000 Homeland Security grant from the National Science Foundation—-it’s thought that her work might lead to developing computer models to interpret body movements, as “being able to quickly and accurately interpret body movements from a distance would allow for the identification of potential terrorist activities in crowded areas such as airports, subways and city streets.” Previous research on autism and body movements has focused on the eyes and mouth. It’s been pointed out that something like eye contact can vary from culture to culture, and the same holds for body language and gesture. Wonder if they’ll be effort to develop “body reading” programs, just as there are already “mind reading ones for autistic children.

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  • Phil Schwarz

    “…people with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to view other people and objects alike. It is as if they view the world through a lens devoid of emotion.”

    Non-sequitur. The second sentence does not follow from the first.

    And it’s so freakin’ far from the truth. Non-expression of emotion in normative ways does *not* equal or imply lack of emotion.

  • Phil Schwarz

    “What we hope to determine through our research is whether people with ASD have trouble perceiving human movement because they avoid human contact in order to function, or if it is their visual system that is treating people as objects.”

    False dilemma. There are plenty of other hypotheses, including systemic bias on the part of the investigators, as part of a normative neurological majority, about what outliers in that distribution might consider to be relevant body movements. A perfectly good (and unaddressed) hypothesis is that autistic people *are* observing human movement, and simply filtering in or out of their attention different parts of the mass of details involved (too much for *any* brain, autistic or nonautistic, to process in the entirety in real time).

    So much of this stuff is really a matter of privilege of the majority: those in the far more massive normative majority never even *seeing* alternative perspectives of tiny minorities as legitimate, or in many cases, even as existent.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    And I found the planned applications of the research alarming—-to detect terrorists? So just the way one moves one’s body might make one a suspect?