Mind in Action : Action Representation and the Perception of Biological Motion

University dissertation from Lund University

Abstract: The ability to understand and communicate about the actions of others is a fundamental aspect of our daily activity. How can we talk about what others are doing? What qualities do different actions have such that they cause us to see them as being different or similar? What is the connection between what we see and the development of concepts and words or expressions for the things that we see? To what extent can two different people see and talk about the same things? Is there a common basis for our perception, and is there then a common basis for the concepts we form and the way in which the concepts become lexicalized in language? The broad purpose of this thesis is to relate aspects of perception, categorization and language to action recognition and conceptualization. This is achieved by empirically demonstrating a prototype structure for action categories and by revealing the effect this structure has on language via the semantic organization of verbs for natural actions. The results also show that implicit access to categorical information can affect the perceptual processing of basic actions. These findings indicate that our understanding of human actions is guided by the activation of high level information in the form of dynamic action templates or prototypes. More specifically, the first two empirical studies investigate the relation between perception and the hierarchical structure of action categories, i.e., subordinate, basic, and superordinate level action categories. Subjects generated lists of verbs based on perceptual criteria. Analyses based on multidimensional scaling showed a significant correlation for the semantic organization of a subset of the verbs for English and Swedish speaking subjects. Two additional experiments were performed in order to further determine the extent to which action categories exhibit graded structure, which would indicate the existence of prototypes for action categories. The results from typicality ratings and category verification showed that typicality judgments reliably predict category verification times for instances of different actions. Finally, the results from a repetition (short-term) priming paradigm suggest that high level information about the categorical differences between actions can be implicitly activated and facilitates the later visual processing of displays of biological motion. This facilitation occurs for upright displays, but appears to be lacking for displays that are shown upside down. These results show that the implicit activation of information about action categories can play a critical role in the perception of human actions.

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