Seeing vs. Not Seeing: Investigating Visual Awareness

For June 12, 2019                              Please share with your friends & neighbors 

Hi WN@TL Fans,

We are a dozen days into June, approaching Shakespeare’s Midsummer, and the sun is finishing its long swing towards the solstice.

Mythologies are full of stories to explain sunrise and sunset, but there’s little shrift for the apparent shift of the sunrise sliding from southeast to east to northeast and back.

Nevertheless, the words sunrise and solstice (literally, ‘the sun stands still’) speak to how our perceptions and misconceptions are embedded in our language. Every child has to be taught to doubt their eyes—or more accurately, to be taught to go with not the simplest explanation, but rather to go with the simplest explanation that fits the available evidence. Honing one’s sense of parsimony and sharpening one’s own Ockham’s Razor are key strokes of a liberal education.

For an experimentalist, few epistemological challenges surpass those of how to test the perceptions of our senses—especially of vision, the sense that works in living color—and of how to parse the possibilities, to discern among the angles, and to resolve the fine differences of what we perceive.

This week (June 12) Emily Ward,  Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, shares her research from the Vision Cognition Laboratory with her talk entitled, “Seeing & Not Seeing:  Investigating Visual Awareness.

Here’s how she describes her talk:

“Becoming aware of the world seems simple and straightforward — indeed, there may be no aspect of the mind that is more taken for granted, by both laypeople and scientists. But in fact, the gulf between our visual awareness and the world itself is wide and counterintuitive.

“Understanding the nature of visual awareness is further complicated by what seems like its inextricable tie to attention and our ability to report what we see. So not only do many fundamental questions about the nature of visual awareness remain, but there are difficult experimental challenges in answering them.

“I will introduce several of these outstanding questions, including whether failures of awareness reflect genuine deficits in moment-by-moment conscious perception and whether we see more than we can report, and describe how my lab uses new techniques to get around the challenges. Collectively, this work reveals some of the causes and consequences of the dissociation between visual awareness and the world.”

About the Speaker:

Emily J. Ward is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at UW–Madison, where she directs the Visual Cognition Laboratory. She is broadly interested in understanding the scope and limits of visual perception, with an emphasis on how we can better understand the nature of our consciousness experience by understanding what we see and fail to see.

Before coming to UW-Madison, she received her Ph.D. from the Department of Psychology at Yale and then spent a year as a Visiting Researcher at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands. Before Yale, she studied spatial cognition as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania and received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Next week (June 19) Jonathan Patz of the School of Medicine & Public Health and of the Global Health Institute return to WN@TL to ask, “How Might Solving the Global Climate Crisis Create the Largest Health Benefit of the Century?”

He will tune us in to how, in his words, “Global Climate Change poses multiple severe risks to our health, and yet, the low carbon economy needed to solve today’s climate crisis will offer enormous health benefits, particularly in the area of chronic diseases. In this presentation, health risks from climate change will be summarized, as well as studies documenting the potential health gains emerging from across the energy, food, and transportation sectors.


I admire the idea that when given lemons, make limoncello.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Thanks again!

Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension


UW-Madison:  5.8 million owners, one pretty good public land-grant teaching, research and extension university.

Visit UW-Madison’s science outreach portal at for information on the people, places & programs on campus that welcome you to come experience science as exploring the unknown, all year round.

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