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Paul A. Szego, M. D. Rutherford; Life is not just in the fast lane: dissociating the perceptions of speed and animacy. Journal of Vision 2007;7(9):480. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/7.9.480.
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The ability to discriminate animate objects from inanimate ones is fundamental to social cognition. Previous research focusing on low-level motion cues to the visual perception of animacy has revealed a robust and reliable association between the perception of speed and the perception of animacy: Objects perceived as moving relatively faster are also perceived as animate more often than relatively slower objects. To test whether these perceptions could be dissociated, we presented participants with displays of two objects travelling in succession across a screen in opposite directions. Using a within-subjects design, participants were instructed to report which object appeared alive on half the trials and faster on the other half, in a two-alternative forced-choice task. Experimental trials presented objects appearing to move with or against gravity by “rising up” and “falling down” on a vertical screen; control trials presented objects travelling leftwards and rightwards. “Rising” objects were judged as animate more often than “falling” objects, perhaps due to the perceived presence of an internal power source allowing the object to violate gravity. Conversely, the “falling” objects were judged as faster than “rising” objects, suggesting that the pairing of speed and animacy can be dissociated. Additionally, objects travelling from left-to-right were judged as both faster and animate more often than objects travelling right-to-left. A follow-up experiment using the same stimuli and procedures on bilingual people who are fluent readers in a language read from right-to-left revealed no speed or animacy bias for horizontal directions. These experiments imply that judgements of speed and animacy can be influenced by higher-order visual processes, such as those related to highly familiarized concepts of motion forces (e.g., gravity), directionality (e.g., reading), and possibly highly trained motoric responses, such as those reinforced by reading.
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