What You See Isn’t Always What You Get

Vision shapes so much of people's interaction with the world. One researcher is delving into how it all works in a unique way.

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So much of the brain is involved in vision and visual perception that almost any brain damage can have an impact not only on how a person sees, but also on how a person interacts with the world.

Vision guides action, says neuroscientist Doug Crawford, Scientific Director of the Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA) program at York University.

Furthermore, studying how vision works also says a lot about neuroscience and how the brain works.

Crawford’s research focusses on three specific areas. In the first, he studies a perceptual phenomenon called trans-saccadic integration that helps the brain piece together what the eye sees and interpret it as a seamless image. In truth, the way the eye moves is jumpy: it alternates between fixating on a specific point and jumping to the next location in abrupt movements called saccades.

Crawford also looks at how vision guides arm and hand movements, and the mechanisms that result in eye-hand coordination and grasping. Lastly, he looks at how vision guides where we look, and how this drives the movement of both the head and the eyes to control visual gaze.

“One thing I do that really no one else is doing in the world, is examine the three-dimensional aspects of how the eyes and the head rotate as we move gaze around ourselves and glance at different things, and how different brain structures contribute to that function,” explains Crawford.

Together, these studies cover a broad range of fields, and Crawford notes that collaboration is key in studying vision.

“If you want to get at the big questions, often you have to gather together both the theoretical knowledge and also the ability to use different technologies,” says Crawford. “That’s very much the case for my research and our VISTA program, where we’re bringing together computer scientists, neuroscientists, and people in the arts, to go after those big questions.”

One of those big questions is how to use knowledge and technology to improve quality of life as medicine continues to extend longevity. Understanding the brain and vision could help deliver more independent years as people age.

These insights into how vision and action are related could open all kinds of applications in neuroscience, health, and medicine.

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Doug Crawford is the Canada Research Chair in Visuomotor Neuroscience, Distinguished Research Professor in Neuroscience, and Scientific Director of the Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA) program at York University, Toronto. Crawford completed his PhD in Physiology at Western University in 1993 and then spent two years as an MRC Fellow at the Montreal Neurological Institute, before joining the York Department of Psychology in 1995. For the past 23 years his work at the York Centre for Vision Research has focused on the control of visual gaze in 3D space, eye-hand coordination, and spatial memory during eye movements. This has resulted in over 140 papers in publications such as Nature, Science and Annual Review of Neuroscience, and has garnered numerous awards, including the 2004 Steacie Prize and the 2016 Canadian Physiological Society Sarrazin Award. He has trained over 60 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, so far guiding more than 25 of these into long-term research, clinical and teaching positions. He has founded various groups and programs, including the York Neurophysiology Labs, the York Graduate Diploma Program in Neuroscience, the Canadian Action and Perception Network (CAPnet), the ‘Brain in Action’ International Research Training Program, and most recently, the CFREF-funded VISTA program. 

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