August 05, 2014, BY Paula Cogan Myers

graphic of sound perception

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A hush falls over Bucknell University as the students depart at the end of each spring semester. You might wonder if anything happens on campus during the summer. The students and faculty doing summer research can assure you that it does. From exploring how music links with literature in the poetry of Emily Dickinson to installing a network of sensors to measure temperature variability in the Susquehanna River, they're busy pursuing their scholarly interests.

Sample a taste of the work being done on campus this summer in English, economics, psychology, and civil engineering.

Alexis Mook '15, psychology and Ian Wellington '15, neuroscience

Mentored by: Professor Aaron Mitchel, psychology  

Supported by the Bucknell Program for Undergraduate Research (PUR)  

How do what we see and what we hear interact? Alexis Mook '15 and Ian Wellington '15 decided to learn more when they took Sensation and Perception with Professor Aaron Mitchel, psychology.  

Both worked in Mitchel's lab last year, and the previous summer Wellington worked with Mitchel and researchers at the Geisinger-Bucknell Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute on a project funded by the Bucknell-Geisinger Research Initiative. They spent this summer conducting research for their honors theses and this time, they each formulated their own questions and set their own research agendas.  

Mook is interested in the attractiveness area of face perception. "Attractiveness is studied in many fields in psychology," she said. "We get social cues from faces and there are certain things we find attractive and certain things we don't."  

She's trying to integrate the research on vocal attractiveness and facial attractiveness. "There's a lot of research on facial attractiveness and a smaller set of research on vocal attractiveness, but they aren't really integrated," she said. "I'm doing an experimental study focusing on averageness because there is clear-cut data on that. We're going to be using really average faces, which would be like taking 32 pictures and making them into one."  

To do that, she is using Face Lab, a program that combines average faces. She asks study participants to look at a composite average face or hear a composite average voice for 10 seconds and rate them on a scale of 1-7. "The point of my experiment is to make something that has been done more ecologically valid by combining face and voice attractiveness perception," she said. "For example, when you go on a date, you're seeing and hearing the person at the same time. You're not just seeing a face and rating a voice later."  

Alexis Mook '15 and Ian Wellington '15 in the sensation and perception lab.
Alexis Mook '15 and Ian Wellington '15 in the sensation and perception lab.

Wellington is interested in the factors that influence how we combine sight and sound, a process known as audiovisual integration.  For example, imagine that there is a gap between the audio and video you're watching, as is sometimes the case in YouTube videos. If the gap is close enough, your brain will combine them and you won't notice they're out of sync. If the gap is large enough, your brain will process them as separate events or objects.   

Wellington explains that every individual is different. "The size of the gap (the temporal binding window) influences how people integrate audio and visual information," he said. "So someone with a smaller temporal binding window will more accurately combine how someone is speaking with watching their face to better understand what they're saying."  

One factor that may influence this is the presence of autistic-like traits, as individuals with these tendencies exhibit larger binding windows. "In autism, it's been shown that people have a harder time with this," Wellington said. "So, if they see me speaking, it won't help them much more than if they just hear me speaking."  

This summer, Wellington is working to find out if variability in the size of the temporal binding window is dependent on the stimulus the person is seeing and hearing, like a hand clap or someone's voice. He's also examining how that's influenced by autistic-like traits in the general population. "Over the summer, I'm building the stimuli, putting together the programs and will start writing my honors thesis," he said.  

Both Mook and Wellington value the chance to focus on their own research and build on their previous experience. Professor Mitchel agrees. "Working with undergraduate students really makes my research possible. I don't think I'd be able to do the kinds of studies I want to do if I didn't have good, dedicated students helping me," he said. "Their work really dovetails with the overall work in the lab. It's very nice for me to see students who have been working in the lab doing projects that I've designed, take the ideas from those and the papers we've read and expand them into other areas."