What kind of research do we do?

All CESPA laboratories are concerned with the theme of perceiving and acting. This integrated structure promotes an active atmosphere and allows students to move easily among experimental methods and faculty advisors. In addition to ecological faculty on UConn’s Storrs campus (James Dixon, Till Frank, Bruce Kay, and Tehran Davis in Psychology; Deb Bubela and Jeffrey Kinsella-Shaw in Physical Therapy) and Hartford campus (Kerry Marsh), and an active core of emeritus professors (Claudia Carello, Carol Fowler, Claire Michaels, Robert Shaw, and M. T. Turvey), collaborative research can also be undertaken with CESPA Fellows (Peter Beek, Paula Fitzpatrick, Bert Hodges, Ken Holt, Dilip Kondepudi, William Mace, and Richard C. Schmidt), regular visitors whose primary affiliation is with other universities.

The Center is housed in 4600 square feet in the Bousfield Psychology Building. The computer environment of Macintosh and Pentium machines, connected via local area networks, is upgraded regularly. (The University’s mainframe is accessed by ethernet and wireless from every CESPA computer and the Psychology Department has a computer systems manager with two full-time assistants to address software, hardware, and network problems.) Force platforms, electrogoniometers, electromagnetic and infrared movement registration devices, and a computerized treadmill collect data from posture, bimanual coordination, walking, and exploratory behaviors. Customized software includes spectral, correlational, dimensionality, and stability analyses, trial by trial information about parameters such as periods of oscillation, amplitudes, and kinetic energy.

Vision & Action

As an animal moves relative to objects in the environment, changes in the patterning of reflected light from surfaces are potentially informative about such characteristics as surface composition, extent and slant, about the presence of obstacles or openings, the direction and velocity of relative movement, time to contact with surfaces and the severity of the impending contact. Similarly, attention is given to the visual guidance of interception: For example, we ask what optical patterns guide body and hand movements in catching. A major focus of our work is on the mathematics and physics of light at the ecological scale as a way to capture the information about such surface and locomotor transformations. Experiments involving dynamic computer displays allow the testing of the usefulness of candidate descriptions for guiding activity as well as the implications of such descriptions for understanding how optical information is detected by the visual perceptual system.

The optical patterns available to a moving or stationary perceiver-actor specify a variety of important properties of the environment, including the opportunities the environment offers for action. In the optical flow laboratory, we ask how significant aspects of the environment are specified by optical patterns and whether perceiver-actors exploit these patterns in perceiving and acting. Our concern has historically been with navigation: by what optical patterns do we guide our locomotion (steer, stop) through the environment. More recently we have sought to uncover principles of information-action coupling in interceptive tasks. Among the tasks we study are how outfielders run appropriately so as to catch fly balls, how one guides a reach to the side to intercept a ball with one hand, and how one times a volleyball smash.

Dynamic Touch

Transporting objects and manipulating tools requires that properties such as size, shape, and orientation be perceived so that activity can be guided effectively. If vision is absent or simply directed elsewhere, are environmental properties revealed in the tissue deformations that accompany wielding with the hand or exploring with a hand-held object such as a cane?

Here is the problem: Muscular forces and object motions vary over time but the properties do not. Our work focuses on time-invariant quantities–moments of the mass distribution–that have been shown to underlie haptic perception of a variety of functional properties of objects, properties that reflect how an object can be moved and controlled. Experiments involving manipulations of the mass distribution examine spatial capabilties of dynamic touch and allow comparisons to the informational support for vision and hearing.

Intentional Dynamics

Behavior that is oriented with respect to some goal is said to be intentional. In order for an intention to be fulfilled by a system, whether an individual or a social unit, it must serve as a global constraint on the local actions of that system (e.g., the location of a target constrains how the act of throwing is assembled; the desired facial profile constrains orthodontic treatment planning). Intentional behavior requires prospective, anticipatory control. How can the current dynamics of a system, the forces it must produce, the energy it must use, the number of participants engaged in an act Ñ be constrained by a goal that lies in the future, perhaps years away? What kinds of systems can be considered intentional? Experiments assess the consequences for behavior of manipulating intentions (e.g., navigate a wheel chair through clutter carefully or quickly)

Coordination Dynamics

Particular time-varying patternings of the limbs characterize activities such as running, juggling, and baseball batting. These movement patterns comprise many degrees of freedom at the neural and muscular level organized as a functional unit. What general principles are at work in their assembly, and what quantities capture their dynamical, macroscopic nature? Movement patterns change to meet task demands, for example, reflecting the type of terrain (steep, slippery) or the intent of the actor (staying in the middle of the path).. Are these chang es principled? Given that information guides the assembling of movement patterns, and the execution of acts, how is this information made available in dynamically relevant and task-specific ways, and how is it used? Experiments typically employ rhythmic behaviors to assess the consequences for coordination of varying aspects of the underlying dynamic.

Social & Interpersonal Coordination

The environment that constrains our behavior includes not only objects and events but also other members of our species. When we dance or talk or work together to accomplish a goal, our behaviors are guided by information about others within our social niche. Research in this laboratory strives to apply ecological psychology’s law-based perspective–in particular, exploiting methods from dynamical systems and affordance research–to study how we perceive and act with others. Experiments examine transitions from individual to social behavior, including possible influences on the degree of synchrony between two people who may or may not intend to coordinate.

Other Research

Investigations of topics such as ecological acoustics, affordances, picture perception, perceptual learning, the dynamics of development, cognitive influences on coordination, posture, ecological human factors, and so on, typically emerge from one or more of the focal laboratories, thereby exploiting the richness of their characteristic observables and analytic tools. Students interested in the ecological approach to language (Fowler) can pursue their studies within either Ecological Psychology or in the Experimental Division’s Program in Language and Cognition. Students interested in the ecological approach to development (Dixon) can pursue their studies within either Ecological Psychology or in the Developmental Psychology Program.