University of Giessen (Germany) How personal is our perception in everyday life?

Perceptual research: Prof. Daniel Kaiser receives ERC Starting Grant – Research group of the University of Giessen combines methods of neuroscience and computer science to decipher individual perceptual achievements

Everyone sees the world with their own eyes – and with their own brain. In fact, visual perception performances in everyday life differ considerably between individuals. How can these differences be used to understand perceptual functions in complex natural scenes? The psychologist and neuroscientist Prof. Dr. Daniel Kaiser and his Neuroinformatics working group at the Mathematical Institute of Justus Liebig University Giessen (JLU) want to track down the differences. Now he has acquired a Starting Grant “PEP” (Personalized priors) funded by the European Research Council How individual differences in internal models explain idiosyncrasies in natural vision. With the ERC Starting Grant, he wants to provide explanations for our personal perception of the environment. The project will be funded with almost 1.5 million euros over the next five years.

JLU President Prof. Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee congratulates Prof. Kaiser on this outstanding success: “In his research, Prof. Kaiser combines neuroscientific investigation methods with innovative methods of computer-aided data analysis. I am sure that we can expect important insights into fundamental mechanisms of visual perception from him. We are pleased that the Neuroinformatics working group will further strengthen JLU’s scientific focus on perception research.”

At every moment of our everyday lives, we are confronted with an overwhelming amount of visual information,” explains Prof. Kaiser: “Modern theories assume that our brain can better understand this mass of information by comparing the recorded impressions with internal models of the world – ideal ‘templates’ for our everyday environments – so to speak and thus classifying them more efficiently. For example, when we enter a kitchen, it is easier for us to process the visual information if this room corresponds to our ideal image of a kitchen.”

In his ERC project, Prof. Kaiser investigates how such internal models differ between people and how these differences can be used to understand perceptual functions in complex natural scenes. To this end, he and his team use creative drawing tasks in which test persons represent typical environments for them (for example, an ideal kitchen). The information obtained about the internal models of individual persons should serve to model individual differences in perception. For this purpose, the scientists create virtual environments on the computer, for example using artificial neural networks, which come as close as possible to a person’s internal models or – on the contrary – systematically differ from them.

In order to investigate the processing of such environments, the researchers use a combination of innovative methods of neuroscience (for example, recording brain activity using functional MRI and EEG) and computer-aided data analysis (neuronal decoding and artificial neural network models). This makes it possible to describe how individual differences in internal models of our environment influence processing in our brain – from the arrival of a light stimulus in our eye to complex processing across different brain areas.

On the one hand, the project develops a comprehensive methodology to make the contents of the internal models visible. On the other hand, it provides a new explanation for why perceptual efficiency in everyday life can vary drastically between different people. Prof. Kaiser wants to provide a wide range of applications with the research methodology established in the project: “In the future, differences in perceptual functions over the lifespan or perceptual changes in clinical disorders could be described and explained in a completely new way.”

Since October 1, 2021, Prof. Dr. Daniel Kaiser has held the Tenure Track Professorship for Neuroinformatics at the Institute of Mathematics (Faculty 07 – Mathematics and Computer Science, Physics, Geography) at JLU, where he heads the Neuroinformatics working group. He is a member of the “Center for Mind, Brain and Behavior” of the Universities of Giessen and Marburg, the cluster project “The Adaptive Mind” funded by the state of Hesse and the DFG-funded Collaborative Research Center SFB/TRR 135 “Cardinal Mechanisms of Perception”.

Daniel Kaiser studied psychology at the University of Regensburg from 2007 to 2012.He then worked as a PhD student at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences (CIMeC) at the University of Trento, Italy, where he received his doctorate in cognitive and neuroscience in 2015 and then spent a year as a postdoc. After moving to Freie Universität Berlin in 2017, his next professional position took him to England, where he was a lecturer at the University of York from 2019 to 2021.

With his research, Prof. Kaiser wants to decipher fundamental mechanisms of visual perception. Particular attention is paid to how people successfully navigate complex natural environments and which brain processes support this.