Posts Tagged ‘The Vision Revolution’

Jorge Salazar of EarthSky.org recently interviewed me about my research, and you can find the podcast and text here. I got a chance to talk about the similarity between accents and color vision (how we all believe we have uncolorey skin and no accent), the function of color vision (it’s for giving you that empath sense you didn’t know you have), and why we don’t have eyes on the sides of our heads (it’s for seeing better in cluttered leafy habitats, just the thing for a primate).


Mark Changizi is Professor of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books).

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The UK Royal Society picked their top six science books of 2009. My Vision Revolution was not chosen.

But Amanda Gefter, editor at New Scientist, wrote a story on the Royal Society’s choices, and Vis Rev was one of the books she suggested may have been a better choice than some that made it in.

These two slots might have been better filled by others, such as Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, a fabulous book that made the Society’s longlist. Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene didn’t make even that cut, though it was probably my favourite science read of 2009. The Vision Revolution by Mark Changizi, another fascinating book, was also overlooked, as were Wetware by Dennis Bray and Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham.

You can read the entire story here: online and print version.


Mark Changizi is Professor of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books).

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Cyclopses are better than us at video games.

Mike Fahey at Kotaku just wrote a story about my Vision Revolution book, specifically on the matter of what forward-facing eyes are for, in the context of cyclopses and first person shooter video games. His story begins as…

“You might have a pair of eyes, but when you’re playing first-person video games, you’re no better than a cyclops. Neuroscientist Mark Changizi explains how our cyclops-vision helps pinpoint what we’re missing out on when we lose an eye.”

See the rest of the story here.


Mark Changizi is Professor of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed (Benbella Books).

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Ian Woolf of Diffusion Radio just reviewed The Vision Revolution, and you can hear the podcast here (15 minutes in).


Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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Recently I was interviewed Jovana Grbic of ScriptPhD about The Vision Revolution. She has a great knack for asking unusual questions, taking me out of my standard responses and making me think. (To find the podcast itself, scroll down within this link until you see it.) I also wrote a guest piece for them on idea-mongering and non-genius that you’ll find there.


Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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David DiSalvo is a science writer for places like Scientific American, with his own Brainspin column at the True/Slant Network, and another column he calls Neuronarrative.

He recently interviewed me about my book, The Vision Revolution

Neuronarrative interview with me


Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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The press release just came out for my simple proposal for harnessing our color vision for better sensing clinical skin color changes of patients, along with some news stories, which can be linked here…

LA Times, Toronto Sun, Forbes, Times Union (and video), Troy Record, BoingBoing, AOL News, Times Colony, Diagnostic Imaging, Ratschlag24, Press Release, and my own SB piece. Also, here’s the paper itself.

This proposal for medicine is a corollary of my research on the evolution of color vision — it’s for seeing emotions and states on the skin of those around us — something you can read about in my book, The Vision Revolution. I have a variety of pieces on the research here.

And here’s a figure that helps summarize the “oximetry” point in the press release…

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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Click on each slide to see it in higher resolution.

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

For more information about my theory, see LiveScience, New York Times, BoingBoing, SciAm. The best introduction is chapter 3 of The Vision Revolution. And the journal article is here.

This first appeared on December 24, 2009, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.

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Benchfly’s Alan Marnett hit me with an in-depth interview Dec 16, 2009. In addition to getting into the science, the nice thing about the interview was the opportunity to talk about different ways of being a scientist. As you’ll see, I suggest being an aloof son-of-a-bitch, something I also talk about in this piece titled “How Not to Get Absorbed in Someone Else’s Abdomen“.


As research scientists, many of us spend a very large amount of time working on a very small subject.  In fact, it’s not unusual for a biochemist to go through their entire career without ever physically observing the protein or pathway they work on.  As we hyper-focus on our own niche of science, we run the risk of forgetting to take the blinders off to see where our slice of work fits in to the rest of the pie.


For Dr. Mark Changizi, assistant professor and author of The Vision Revolution, science starts with the pie.  We spoke with Dr. Changizi about why losing focus on the big picture can hurt our research, how autistic savants show us the real capacity of the brain and what humans will look like a million years from now.

BenchFly: Your book presents theories on questions ranging from why our eyes face forward to why we see in color.  Big questions.  As a kid, was it your attraction to the big questions that drew you into science?

Mark Changizi: I sometimes distinguish between two motivations for going into science. First there’s the “radio kid,” the one who takes apart the radio, is always fascinated with how things work, and is especially interested in “getting in there” and manipulating the world. And then there’s the “Carl Sagan kid,” the one motivated by the romantic what-does-it-all-mean questions. The beauty of Sagan’s Cosmos series is that he packaged science in such a way that it fills the more “religious” parts of one’s brain. You tap into that in a kid’s mind, and you can motivate them in a much more robust way than you can from a here’s-how-things-work motivation. I’m a Carl Sagan kid, and was specifically further spurred on by Sagan’s Cosmos. As long as I can remember, my stated goal in life has been to “answer the questions to the universe.”

While that aim has stayed constant, my views on what counts as “the questions to the universe” have changed. As a kid, cosmology and particle physics were where I thought the biggest questions lied. But later I reasoned that there were even more fundamental questions; even if physics were different than what we have in our universe, math would be the same. In particular, I became fascinated with mathematical logic and the undecidability results, the area of my dissertation. With those results, one can often make interesting claims about the ultimate limits on thinking machines. But it is not just math that is more fundamental than physics – that math is more fundamental than physics is obvious. In a universe without our physics, the emergent principles governing complex organisms and evolving systems may still be the same as those found in our universe. Even economic and political principles, in this light, may be deeper than physics: five-dimensional aliens floating in goo in a universe with quite different physics may still have limited resources, and may end up with the same economic and political principles we fuss over.

So perhaps that goes some way to explaining my research interests.

Tell us a little about both the scientific and thought processes when tackling questions that are very difficult to actually prove beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This is science we’re talking about, of course, not math, so nothing in science is proven in the strong mathematical sense. It is all about data supporting one’s hypothesis, and all about the parsimonious nature of the hypothesis.  Parsimony aims for explaining the greatest range of data with the simplest amount of theory. That’s what I aim for.

But it can, indeed, be difficult to find data for the kinds of questions I am interested in, because they often make predictions about a large swathe of data nobody has. That’s why I typically have to generate 50 to 100 ideas in my research notes before I find one that’s not only a good idea, but one for which I can find data to test it. You can’t go around writing papers without new data to test it. If you want to be a theorist, then not only can you not afford to spend the time to become an experimentalist to test your question, but most of your questions may not be testable by any set of experiments you could hope to do in a reasonable period of time. Often it requires pooling together data from across an entire literature.

In basic research we are often hyper-focused on the details.  To understand a complex problem, we start very simple and then assume we will eventually be able to assemble the disparate parts into a single, clear picture.  In essence, you think about problems in the opposite direction- asking the big questions up front.  Describe the philosophical difference between the two approaches, as well as their relationship in the process of discovery.

A lot of people believe that by going straight to the parts – to the mechanism – they can eventually come to understand the organism. The problem is that the mechanisms in biology were selected to do stuff, to carry out certain functions. The mechanisms can only be understood as mechanisms that implement certain functions. That’s what it means to understand a mechanism: one must say how the physical material manages to carry out a certain set of functional capabilities.

And that means one must get into the business of building and testing hypotheses about what the mechanism is for. Why did that mechanism evolve in the first place? There is a certain “reductive” strain within the biological and brain sciences that believes that science has no role for getting into questions of “why”. That’s “just so story” stuff.  Although there’s plenty of just-so-stories – i.e., bad science – in the study of the design and function of biological structure, it by no means needs to be. It can be good science, just like any other area of science. One just needs to make testable hypotheses, and then go test it. And it is not appreciated how often reductive types themselves are in the business of just-so-stories; e.g., computational simulators are concerned just with the mechanisms and often eschew worrying about the functional level, but then allow themselves a dozen or more free parameters in their simulation to fit the data.

So, you have got to attack the functional level in order to understand organisms, and you really need to do that before, or at least in parallel with, the study of the mechanisms.

But in order to understand the functional level, one must go beyond the organism itself, to the environment in which the animal evolved. One needs to devise and test hypotheses about what the biological structure was selected for, and must often refer to the world. One can’t just stay inside the meat to understand the meat.

Looking just at the mechanisms is not only not sufficient, but will tend to lead to futility. An organism’s mechanisms were selected to function only when the “inputs” were the natural ones the organism would have encountered. But when you present a mechanism with an utterly unnatural input, the meat doesn’t output, “Sorry, that’s not an ecologically appropriate input.” (In fact, there are results in theoretical computer science saying that it wouldn’t be generally possible to have a mechanism capable of having such a response.) Instead, the mechanism does something. If you’re studying the mechanism without an appreciation for what it’s for, you’ll have teems and teems of mechanistic reactions that are irrelevant to what it is designed for, but you won’t know it.

The example I often use is the stapler. Drop a stapler into a primitive tribe, and imagine what they do to it. Having no idea what it’s for, they manage to push and pull its mechanisms in all sorts of irrelevant ways. They might spend years, say, carefully studying the mechanisms underlying why it falls as it does when dropped from a tree, or how it functions as crude numchucks. There are literally infinitely many aspects of the stapler mechanism that could be experimented upon, but only a small fraction are relevant to the stapler’s function, which is to fasten paper together.

In explaining why we see in color, you suggest that it allows us to detect the subtleties of complex emotions expressed by humans – such as blushing.  Does this mean colorblind men actually have a legitimate excuse for not understanding women?!

…..to see my answer, and the rest of the interview, go to Benchfly.

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Have you ever noticed that Santa’s rosy cheeks are visible despite his furry face? It is as if his facial hair “purposely” keeps out of the way of his color signals. I have argued in my research that some of us primates evolved bare faces (and rumps) in order to color signal. In fact, our color vision appears to be optimized for sensing these blood-modulated color signals. I talk about this in detail in Chapter 1 of The Vision Revolution, and you can also find a variety of pieces related to this on my ChangiziBlog.

Santa's rosy cheeks are not obscured by his beard.

In this light, here is an excerpt from a piece Roger Highfield wrote about Santa’s beard before he became editor of New Scientist.

Research by Dr Mark Changizi of America’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has suggested that we may have evolved our particular brand of colour vision to discriminate between slight changes in skin tone due to blushing, rage and blanching.

A survey of our primate relatives suggests that this kind of vision is only found in those with bare faces, such as humans, and is tuned precisely to detect changes in skin tone.

But even a beard as luxuriant as Santa’s should not hinder his ability to send out a colour signal, such as a healthy glow. After all, says Dr Changizi, we could have evolved to sprout hair anywhere – for example, on the cheeks, forehead and nose, which are the first areas to go red.

“But facial hair doesn’t end up there,” he points out. “You can really appreciate what beards don’t do by looking at men with the condition of hypertrichosis, when their faces are covered with hair.

“In terms of Father Christmas, note how the songs mention his rosy cheeks. Even Santa can colour-signal, despite his facial hair, because evolution has made sure that his beard and moustache got out of the way.”

See the entire piece here.  Roger Highfield has a book about the science of Christmas, in fact: Can Reindeer Fly?: The Science of Christmas (Orion).

Merry Christmas!

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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