The PERCEPTION & MIND LAB investigates how we see, how we think, and especially how seeing and thinking interact to produce sophisticated behavior. We are located in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, and we are also affiliated with two cross-departmental research groups: the Vision Sciences Group, and the Foundations of Mind Group. This page contains information about who we are and what we do.


News

  • Stop: MC Hammer likes perspectival shapes. (August 2020)

  • Lab postdoc Jorge Morales discussed the 'science of subjectivity' on the Spark Dialog podcast! Give the episode a listen here. (August 2020)

  • The lab is thrilled to have the support of the National Science Foundation for our research on the perception of relations! Stay tuned for new empirical and theoretical work on how the mind perceives interactions between objects in the world. (July 2020)

  • This is cool: Lab graduate student Zekun Sun wrote a beautiful piece for the Chinese-language science magazine Neureality (神经现实), about her new Trends in Cognitive Sciences paper on the "Dark Room Problem". Then, she appeared on the Mind-a-Bit podcast (基智一点) to discuss the issue with Qian Yu and Feitong Yang. 恭喜泽坤!
    (July 2020)

  • There's some exciting media around our new paper (led by Jorge Morales, ft. Axel Bax) on perspectival shapes! The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast devoted a fantastic segment to it on a recent episode. Forbes Magazine wrote a very informed piece on the paper, as did Nautilus Magazine — and it was also the subject of a two-page spread in Portugal's national newspaper, Público! Some other stories can be found here, here, and here. Congratulations to Jorge and Axel; and apologies to their parents, who now have more fridge material than they know what to do with. (June 2020)

  • Congratulations to Patrick Little, who will be attending NYU this fall for his PhD! He'll join the lab of Todd Gureckis, and he also plans to collaborate with Wei Ji Ma. In the meantime, he'll stick around until the summer, photoshopping images of grilled cheese (more on that later). Pat was our lab's first ever member, having joined as a college sophomore; this is bittersweet!! (April 2020)

  • The lab has Zoomed into cyberspace for the time being. Wishing everyone health and safety during these uncertain times. (March 2020)

  • Lab graduate student Zekun Sun was just awarded "Best Talk" from the Object Perception, Attention, & Memory Meeting (OPAM)! For her talk titled "Speaking about Seeing". Congratulations Zekun on this well-deserved recognition! (November 2019)

  • Congratulations to lab members Austin Baker and Jorge Morales on winning the poster prize from the Society for Philosophy and Psychology! Austin and Jorge were honored for their project on gender stereotypes and perception, titled "'You're my doctor?': Social stereotypes impair recognition of incidental visual features". And they did it in style. (July 2019)

  • Congratulations to several lab members who are moving on to exciting new positions and opportunities! Visiting graduate student Austin Baker will return to the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science as a Postdoctoral Assistant Professor, where she will continue her research at the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science (and hopefully still collaborate with us!). Lab undergrad Zhenglong Zhou is off to the University of Pennsylvania to begin his PhD in their Department of Psychology. Lab manager Jose Rivera-Aparicio is heading back to Puerto Rico as a law student at the University of Puerto Rico. And Isabel Won, a sophomore in the lab, was one of 13 people selected from 760 applications (!) for a summer internship at Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information. Congratulations to everyone on these exciting new positions! (April 2019)

  • The lab is earning some air miles! Earlier this academic year, Chenxiao Guan won a travel award to attend the Object Perception, Attention, and Memory meeting (aka OPAM) in New Orleans, for her talk on representations of "possibility" in perception. Zekun Sun then earned an Elsevier / Vision Research Travel Award from the Vision Sciences Society, to present her work on how verbal descriptions of images encode their perceived complexity. Next, Alon Hafri won an NEI Postdoctoral Travel Grant to tell VSS attendees how "a phone in a basket looks like a knife in a cup" (curious? join us in Fla.!). And last but not least, Isabel Won earned an undergraduate travel grant from our own Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, to support her impossibly cool VSS presentation titled "Impossible integration of size and weight". As of this update, it is unknown what spoils Chenxiao, Zekun, Alon, and Isabel will claim. (April 2019)

  • There's some fun media surrounding our new work (led by lab undergrad Zhenglong Zhou) on how humans perceive adversarial images! Here at JHU, The Hub produced a story and video about the project, which includes a little game to give you a sense of the experience our subjects had. Another great piece is over at VentureBeat, which wrote a long and well-informed article about the paper. There was also some great discussion on the "AI with AI" Podcast. And believe it or not, there was a surprisingly well-informed and insightful discussion about our project on Reddit! We'll let you find that on your own... (April 2019)

  • Lab postdoc Jorge Morales was just named a Provost's Postdoctoral Fellow! Jorge's work and promise were singled out by the Office of the Provost, which has honored him with a special funding award to support his work here at JHU. Congratulations to Jorge on this well-deserved recognition! (March 2019)

  • We've just posted our first-ever preprint! From an exciting new project led by lab undergraduate Zhenglong Zhou, on how humans perceive "adversarial images" that fool convolutional neural nets. You can read the full paper at the link above, and you can also find a summary of the work in a recent news article over at New Scientist.
    (September 2018)

  • Chaz spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the lab's exciting new work on the perception of complexity carpets.
    (August 2018)

  • Lab postdoc Jorge Morales appeared on the Consciousness Live YouTube series to speak about his doctoral work on "mental strength". Check it out! (August 2018)

  • Congratulations to several lab members on some exciting awards and prizes! Pat Little won a STAR Award to fund his research in the lab this summer; Isabel Won earned a summer internship in the Laboratory for Child Development here at JHU; Zhenglong Zhou won a DURA Award to start a new project on human and machine vision; and Chaz won a Dean's Teaching Award from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, as well as the Glushko Prize from the Cognitive Science Society. Congratulations to all! Now, back to work. (May 2018)

  • The lab is very excited to be working with the Science of Learning Institute on a new project exploring 'rationality' in learning. (July 2017)

  • Congratulations to lab undergraduate J.J. Valenti on winning a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award! J.J. will be working in the lab this coming academic year on 'reflexive' processing in intuitive physics. (March 2017)

  • We have a website! This is it. It has a cool web address: https://perception.jhu.edu. (August 2016)

  • It's official! In Summer 2017, we're starting up our new lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. (March 2016)


People

Principal Investigator

 
Chaz Firestone [personal webpage][cv]
Assistant Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences
chaz@jhu.edu

Chaz is interested in the nature of seeing, thinking, and the relation between the two. He came to Johns Hopkins after earning his PhD in Psychology at Yale; before that, he spent some time as a graduate student in philosophy at Brown, where he was also an undergraduate. Chaz likes to grapple, eat raw, sour, or pickled foods, and set spurious world records for fastest circumnavigation of the globe on foot. He also gets to work with all of the amazing people on this page.

Affiliated Faculty

 
Ian Phillips [personal webpage]
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Philosophy and Psychological & Brain Sciences
ianbphillips@jhu.edu

Ian is a philosopher and cognitive scientist working on perception; its relations to memory, imagination, and belief; the science of consciousness; and temporal experience. After holding positions at Princeton, Birmingham, Oxford, and UCL, he came to JHU in 2019 as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in Philosophy and PBS. Ian has advised empirical projects on the perception of time, and recently published a new theory of blindsight. He also has strong feelings about Negronis.

Postdoctoral Fellows

 
Alon Hafri [personal webpage]
Postdoctoral Fellow (also in the Bonner Lab)
ahafri@gmail.com

Alon studies how language encodes the structure of scenes (e.g., which objects are in, on, above, or below others), and how this reflects the perceptual processes that extract such information. He earned his PhD at Penn, working with Russell Epstein and John Trueswell on dyadic event representation. Alon makes beer and soup, and performs in an annual Purim play as the beloved Vashti. Lately, he's been trying to convince us that a phone in a basket looks like a knife in a cup.

 
Jorge Morales [personal webpage]
Postdoctoral Fellow
jorge.morales@jhu.edu

Jorge is interested in the nature of subjectivity in the mind, including how we introspect our conscious states, and how subjectivity structures our perceptual experiences. He earned a PhD in philosophy from Columbia, where he led a double life in Hakwan Lau's Consciousness & Metacognition lab researching attention and metacognition using psychophysics and fMRI. Jorge takes photographs — more here — and makes cocktails (sometimes together).

Graduate Students

 
Sholei Croom
Graduate Student
scroom1@jhu.edu

Sholei is interested in the interplay between perception, action and physical understanding. After spending their undergraduate years at Brown running reach-to-grasp experiments with Fulvio Domini, Sholei was a lab manager with Josh Tenenbaum at MIT, where they thought about how structural power manifests in cognitive science research (and even gave a talk about it!). Here in the lab, Sholei is using their embroidery skills for research, by exploring mental knot-tying.

 
Chenxiao Guan
Graduate Student (co-advised by Jonathan Flombaum)
chenxiao@jhu.edu

Chenxiao studies connections between what we see and what we can create, including how we perceive objects that can interact with each other to make something new (e.g., jigsaw puzzle pieces). She came to us from the University of Rochester, where she studied affordances in the CAOs Lab with Brad Mahon, and took advanced math courses for fun. Chenxiao is a skilled ATV pilot, and is rumored to be in a band. She also enforces the lab dress code.

 
Makaela Nartker
Graduate Student (co-advised by Howard Egeth)
makaela@jhu.edu

Makaela thinks about how people think about how machines see. She spent two years in Jeremy Wolfe's lab at Harvard Medical School, where she studied how to play nicely with robots. Before that, she was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, where she made cool 3D stimuli with Jim Todd, scanned brains with Julie Golomb, and spelled her state's name with Barack Obama. This is Makaela's brain; this is Makaela's brain's cat.

 
Zekun Sun
Graduate Student
zekun@jhu.edu

Zekun is exploring the perception of complexity — how and why some objects look informationally dense, and others look informationally sparse. Her previous work at the Chinese Academy of Sciences explored visual attention to painful images (such as a hammer hitting a hand), including one study in which she inflicted actual pain on her subjects by attaching a contact-heat thermode to their arms. For this reason, we don't mess with Zekun.

Lab Affiliates

 
Austin Baker
Postdoctoral Assistant Professor, Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science
austinacbaker@gmail.com

Austin studies the overlap of perception and social cognition; specifically, how our worldview impacts perceptual and cognitive judgments, and how this sheds light on bias and irrationality. She earned a PhD in Philosophy from Rutgers in 2019, and is a frequent lab visitor who spent her final year of grad school in our lab. Austin has worked in a congressional office, been a community organizer, and worked to make academia more inclusive. She likes 80s and 90s cult sci-fi.

 
Patrick Little
Graduate Student at NYU (but frequent lab collaborator!)
pat.little@nyu.edu

Pat was a member of the JHU Class of 2019, until he graduated early to live his best life. He became our lab's first member when he started working with us in 2017, winning a Summer Training and Research Award and turning viral memes into science. He even stuck around as our lab manager until we finally let him move to Todd Gureckis's lab for his PhD. Though Pat has left our lab, he has not left our hearts, Slack channel, lab meetings, or collaborations (sorry Todd).

 
Qihan Wu
Graduate Student in the Flombaum lab
qwu30@jhu.edu

Qihan is interested in the perception of beauty. Her previous work at NYU with Denis Pelli explored beauty's "dimensionality"; now, she's interested in how beauty connects up with other psychological processes, and also in the role of uncertainty and probability in perception. Qihan enjoys classical music, and has a very specific recording she listens to when debugging code: Zhu Xiao Mei's performance of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988.

 
Qian Yu
Graduate Student in the Halberda lab
qianyu@jhu.edu

Qian studies how we remember what we see, and how remembering is or isn't like seeing. While working as a translator of popular books (incl. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson!), she read some psychology books and became fascinated by how the mind works. So, she joined Ying-Yi Hong's Culture Lab at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and explored the Uncanny Valley phenomenon. Qian gives you two lab members for the price of one, since she is rarely seen without her cat, Pipi.

 
Zhenglong Zhou
Graduate Student at Penn (but frequent lab collaborator!)
zzhou34@sas.penn.edu

Zhenglong is a member of the JHU Class of 2019 who majored in cognitive science and math and worked in our lab. With us, he explored how similar the human mind is to various sophisticated machine-learning systems, by asking how humans perceive images that fool machines. Zhenglong is now a grad student at Penn, but he still has lots of projects with us, so he gets to stay on the website. He also plays funky jazz guitar and sends Chaz groovy jazz-fusion recommendations.


Undergraduates

 
Axel Delano Fabiano Bax (really)
Research Assistant
abax1@jhu.edu

Axel is a senior studying psychology and English. He used a laser cutter and Raspberry Pi to run our lab's first "real world" vision experiment, on perspectival representation in perception. Axel cooks and gives admissions tours, and is somehow also a professional futsal player. Really: He plays for the Baltimore Kings, and once competed for a national championship with a broken wrist. Here are his sick highlights. By a 10-1 lab vote, Axel has the coolest name in cognitive science.

 
Tal Boger [personal webpage]
Research Assistant
tal.boger@yale.edu

Tal is a sophomore statistics major at Yale; he joined us in summer 2020 and already runs our lab's most intriguingly titled project ("melting ice cubes with your mind"). On top of statistics, Tal likes basketball and comedy, and once combined all three by generating fake Adrian Wojnarowski tweets on his basketball analytics blog. Tal performs stand-up comedy, writes SNL-style sketches, and has a part-time job expanding a robot aging assistant's language-processing capabilities.

 
Subin Han
Research Assistant
shan61@jhu.edu

Subin is a senior studying cognitive science. She joined the lab in Summer 2019 as an intern, working on the "shape bias" in object naming. Apparently we didn't scare her off, because she's back at it this semester. Subin likes learning languages (so far: English, Korean, Chinese), is a member of Baltimore First, and misses her dog Mong-yi. Subin claims she can live indoors for over a month as long as she has an endless supply of fantasy novels.

 
Michael Lepori
Research Assistant
mlepori1@jhu.edu

Mikey is a recent JHU grad who studied physics and computer science. He's interested in the intersection of AI and psychology, and his latest project involves creating strange demonic messages that possess machines. Mikey enjoys hiking and making music: He's in a band, and is currently attempting the Adirondack 46 challenge. Mikey also works with the Computation and Psycholinguistics Lab here at JHU, and has interned at JHUAPL applying AI to missile defense problems.

 
David Schwitzgebel
Research Assistant
dschwitzgebel@vassar.edu

David is a senior studying cognitive science at Vassar College. In 2019, he joined the lab as a summer intern, and he continues to collaborate with us on "possible objects" in perception. David sings baritone in a choir, identifies as a science-fiction geek, and last year became a citizen of Luxembourg though a "convoluted ancestral technicality" that his aunt discovered. His favorite pizza topping is bananas, and if you disapprove of this you can meet him by the flagpole.

 
Isabel Won [personal webpage]
Research Assistant
iwon1@jhu.edu

Isabel is a senior studying psychology and cognitive science. She is the resident 3D-printing expert in the lab, where she is working on a mind-bending illusion of weight perception. Isabel enjoys music and writing, and was inspired to pursue psychology by Oliver Sacks' book, Musicophilia. Isabel is a member of the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, and has been playing the cello since age six. Here she is performing Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2 in her home state of New Jersey.


Perception is how we make contact with the world around us. How does this core process interface with the rest of the mind?

Our lab approaches this and other questions using the tools of vision science. Much of our work uses computer-based psychophysical experimentation, but we also explore these questions using larger real-world environments, computational models, 3D-printed stimuli, studies of brain-damaged patients, and even some unusual 'field work' (including experiments run in New York City's Times Square!).

A central research interest in the lab is how perception is 'smarter' and richer than we often give it credit for, often influencing — or even incorporating — surprisingly sophisticated processing that you might typically associate with higher-level cognition. For example, we've recently become interested in how our minds generate physical intuitions about the world (e.g., how we determine that a pile of rocks will topple over or stay upright). In one recent project, we have explored how basic representations of an object's shape can reach all the way up to our higher-level judgments about how that object will behave in physically rich scenarios, creating illusions of balance whereby objects that look hopelessly unstable may in fact balance perfectly (or vice versa).

We have also engaged with core questions about the underlying 'format' of what we see. Just as the format of a digital file constrains how it can be used (consider how a .doc file is useful for different purposes than a .pdf), the way our minds encode and represent information constrains how that information can be used by other processes. We have explored the format of perceptual representations by taking objects and shapes as a case study. Using new paradigms the lab has developed, we have found surprisingly direct evidence that the mind represents objects much as an architect might represent a building — in the format of a 'blueprint' or 'skeleton' that explains why objects look and behave as they do.

The lab also has a deep interest in foundational questions about the nature of perception. In particular, we have explored the ways in which higher-level factors such as language, desire, emotion, and action can — and cannot — influence what we see. Our work on this long-standing question in cognitive science has suggested that vision is not simply another kind of cognition, but rather is a truly distinct, 'encapsulated' process in the mind.

For a list of lab publications, see here.

Research


Some of our recent work explores the perception of possibility.



Look at the golden "coin".
What shape do you see?



Machines think this is a starfish.
Do you?


Join Us

Interested in joining the lab? Send an e-mail to Chaz Firestone. Please also check out our opportunities page to learn more about the positions currently available in the lab.