Friday, September 24, 2010

Seeing with Expert Eyes

I'm very interested in the subject of expert performance. While I tend more towards dilettantism, I'm fascinated by people who can perform complex tasks or make minute discriminations seemingly effortlessly. If we can isolate the necessary skills, mental processes, and information that experts need to perform like experts, then we can get people to start behaving like experts faster.

That's the tactic taken by Robert Jacobs of the University of Rochester. A cognitive scientist, he is looking at something that is critical to how experts function, but is easy to miss -- eye movements. How a person moves his or her eyes over a scene can tell you a lot about what they know. (Some recent research has shown that implicit biases in decision making are betrayed by eye movements: the eyes will spend more time looking at information supportive of the initial decision, even if people say they're weighing all the options. Forgot the source, though...) Experts' eyes are very likely to be focusing on different things when scanning a scene compared to a novice's, and these differences can tell us what information is most important in making an expert judgment, even if the experts themselves can't.

Jacobs and colleagues took advantage of this on a recent field trip to Death Valley in California by having researchers -- both expert and novice -- wear mobile eye tracking devices. By capturing both the scenes that individuals are looking at, as well as the movements of their eyes over the scenes, they ultimately hope to develop better teaching methods that focus on perceptual skills. By teaching a person to use her senses like an expert, she may more quickly become an expert.

Since this was just a news brief in SciAm, it's a little light on details and methodology, but I'm interested in following up on this work and see how it develops.

Choi, C. (June 2010). Expert education. Scientific American, 17-18.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A little more than a citizen scientist

As I'm combing through the back issues of Science magazine, I came across the story of Frédérique Darragon. Darragon is one of those people you thought only existed in movies; a real-life Indiana Jones. She comes from a high-society background filled with globe-trotting playgirl (?) exploits -- boat racing, polo playing, modeling, famous boyfriends, etc. She's also had numerous brushes with death, among them a polo ball to the face which left her with a broken jaw, and nearly suffocating in an ice cave.

Lately, though, she's been jaunting mostly around Tibet and the Sichuan Province, trying to uncover the origins and purposes of a number of poorly studied but distinctive towers. The towers, some with a unique star-shaped layout, are situated close to the path of the old silk road, so it's been speculated that they may have served as signposts for nearby towns. Some have argued that they also relate to the lesser-known "musk road," on which the deer musk trade ran, and which joined up with the silk road in this region. It could also be that the towers were built in a game of one-upsmanship by wealthy traders. Darragon is undertaking the only intensive scientific investigation, on her own dime I should mention, to try to test these theories.

Stone, R. (May 7, 2010) Unraveling a riddle in plain sight. Science, 328(5979), 685-687.