Department of Psychology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Fall 2019[TBA]


Instructor: Dr. Emily Ward

Office: Room 517, Brogden Hall

Class Meets: Wed, 9:00 AM – 11:00 AM

Office Hours: Just after class or by appointment.

Preferred Contact:

Location: Rm [TBA], Brogden


Seeing the world seems simple and straightforward. We do it all day, everyday – without ever really thinking about it. At one time, we took this seeming simplicity at face value, viewing visual cognition as a simple process. We now think of visual cognition as a sophisticated and diverse set of processes spanning object recognition, spatial perception, visual awareness, and social and causal perception. Our visual processes may also provide the foundation for our aesthetic preferences and contribute to differences in intelligence.

In this seminar we will explore these aspects of perception and discuss the many ways in which perception supports and constrains other cognitive processes. You will read primary cutting-edge research in visual cognition. Along with discussions of exciting new topics, we will also discuss the pros and cons of state-of-the-art technology, including fMRI pattern analyses and Deep Learning, and engage with relevant philosophical debates. By taking this seminar, you will of course gain a deeper understanding of current topics in visual cognition, but moreover, you may discover new ways that ideas and approaches in visual cognition can be applied to your own research.


As a result of this course, you will:

  • Understand the foundational methods and theories in visual cognition.
  • Be familiar with and critical of state-of-the-art methods and analyses.
  • Be able to integrate ideas from cutting-edge research topics in visual cognition.
  • Evaluate primary empirical research and speculate on its theoretical implications.
  • Gain experience writing topic reviews and leading research discussions.


  • Graduate Psychology Majors only. All others require instructor consent (which I am very likely to give! Please let me know if you are interested!)
  • Graduate/professional standing


Please note that this is a tentative schedule (e.g. Emily will probably be absent for one or two classes due to prior commitments, so things will move around a bit). Any changes will be announced in class, on Canvas, and/or by email. Check Canvas for an up-to-date copy of this syllabus.

Class # Date Topic
1 4-Sep Introduction to visual cognition (the topic and the seminar)
2 11-Sep Three levels: What constitutes an understanding of vision?
3 18-Sep Brain reading: What can we learn about the mind from the brain?
4 25-Sep Things happening: What are the units of perception?
5 2-Oct Must’ve missed it: How we become aware of anything in the first place
6 9-Oct What is that?: How we recognize objects
7 16-Oct Where am I?: Perceiving scenes and objects in (and out of) context
8 23-Oct Gotta remember this: How we reason about objects when they are only in memory
9 30-Oct Why did that happen?: Perceiving causality and causal relationships
10 6-Nov Will that eat me (or can I eat it?): The perception of animacy and animate objects
11 13-Nov Dealing with other people: Visual cognition in a social context
12 20-Nov That’s beautiful!: Are our aesthetic preferences rooted in perception?
27-Nov 🍂🦃   Thanksgiving   🦃 🍂
13 4-Dec I see, therefore I am: Individual differences in visual cognition
14 11-Dec The future is now: What can we learn about the mind from machines?


Tentative readings for each of the classes are listed below (see READINGS).


This course will be run as a reading and discussion seminar. Though there may be occasional short lectures or guest presentations, the usual format will involve an extended discussion of a set of weekly readings focused on a particular aspect of visual cognition.

Everyone is responsible for reading the papers in advance and to be prepared to participate in our discussions. You will be asked to take on two roles in the class: Discussion Leader and Discussion Participant. Each of roles has different responsibilities associated with it:

Discussion Leader Role. Each week, two students will pair up to lead the discussion; each student will be a Discussion Leader at least once during the semester. We will decide the topic assignments in the first class. The Discussion Leader is responsible for the following:

  1. Do the assigned reading and beyond. Read the assigned readings and conduct further research on the topic to supplement the assigned readings. Because the assigned readings are drawn from recent research, you will likely need to read some foundational papers to give you more background, and possibly need to read citing papers to understand the implications of the research.
  2. Review discussion posts. Read the questions that the Discussion Participants posted on the Canvas Discussions page (see Discussion Participant Role), and be prepared to address them in class. The posts may also be integrated into the discussion plan.
  3. Write a discussion plan. Because everyone in the group will be familiar with the key components of the readings (research questions, hypotheses, methods, results, and conclusions), as a Discussion Leader, you will instead focus on synthesizing the readings, answering questions from the other students and discussing the implications of the research. The Discussion Leaders will coordinate as a pair to create a single written discussion plan that takes the form of a very short (2-3 page) review paper, which is one component of your grade. This is to be submitted to me by 8pm on Tues night before class.
  4. Create a discussion outline. To facilitate discussion and keep the group on topic, you will create a bullet-point discussion outline based on your written discussion plan that is to be printed and passed out to everyone at the beginning of class.

NOTE: The discussion posts are due posted by 3pm on Tuesday before class, but you should not wait until then to start writing your discussion plan; rather, five hours should be enough time to integrate the posts if they are interesting. Otherwise, if other ideas or new insights arise during the discussion, the Discussion Leaders have 24 hrs after class (by 11am Thursday) to add to or revise the discussion plan before resubmitting it to me for grading.

The purpose of the discussion plan is: (1) to urge you to think deeply about the week’s topic (rather than regurgitating graphs and summary statements from the papers themselves); (2) to encourage an intelligent, engaging, and enjoyable discussion; and (3) to create a document that could serve as the seed of a longer, publishable review or opinion piece.

Discussion Participant Role. During weeks when you are not a Discussion Leader, you will be a Discussion Participant. Discussion Participants are responsible for the following:

  1. Do the assigned reading. Read the assigned readings with careful attention to identifying the research questions, hypotheses, methods, results, and interpretations of the results. Be sure to bring a paper or digital copy of the reading to class so you can refer to it during the discussion.
  2. Post discussion questions. Formulate two or more questions about the reading and post them on the Discussion page of Canvas by 3pm on Tues afternoon before class. This is a hard deadline to ensure that Discussion Leaders have enough time to review your questions.Regarding the format of questions: you are welcome to post as many questions as you like of the form “I don’t understand the point about X on p. xxx of the article by Y…” (that is, questions expressing confusion about a point). However, at least one of your questions/comments each week must go beyond this type of simple question and be more thought provoking. This could include questions of the sort: “What would X’s theory predict about Y? It seems that the theory would make the wrong prediction because…” or “I don’t understand why the results of Experiment 2 in X’s paper are interpreted to mean Y. It seems that we could also interpret these results to mean Z, because…”
  3. Participate in class discussions. Students are expected to participate actively in class discussions by asking questions and contributing knowledge about the topic.


Final grades will comprise three parts: Discussions & discussion plans, class participation, and a final paper or project.

  1. Discussions & Discussion Plans (30%): Discussion Leaders will be assessed based on:
    1. Command of the material in the readings, demonstrated in the written discussion plan and class discussion.
    2. Inclusion of supplementary material beyond what is in the readings, demonstrated in the written discussion plan and class discussion.
    3. The clarity, organization, and depth of written discussion plan.
    4. Incorporation of points raised in online posts into the class discussion (and written discussion plan, if interesting and relevant).
    5. Cultivation of lively class discussion.
  2. Class Participation (30%):  Discussion Participants will be assessed based on:
    1. Posts of thoughtful questions on Canvas prior to class (complete/incomplete 1% * 10 posts = 10%) Note: There are 10 graded posts but 13 readings. During the week(s) you present, you are not expected to post, and you can miss one week without it affecting your grade. Beyond that, there’s no flexibility regarding missing posts.
    2. Participation in class discussions, including asking and answering questions (20%). Mostly, just come to class each week prepared to discuss the day’s topic(s)!
  3. Final Paper or Project (40%): A final requirement for the seminar will be a final paper or project, due at the very end of the semester. This requirement is flexible: it can be met by a standard research paper (roughly 15 double-spaced pages), by a proposal for some experiments you would like to run (also roughly 15 pages), or by actually constructing and running a pilot experiment (with a very brief writeup and/or class presentation).

We will discuss the nature of this paper/project more fully in class, and I will highlight potential topics as they come up in our discussions. At some point near

the end of the semester, I will also ask you to submit a brief list of brainstormed ideas for the paper. I invite you to view this paper/project not as an irritating class-specific requirement, but rather as an opportunity to integrate this course with your own more general research goals, by actually proposing (and then perhaps running) an experiment of your own design. As with the written discussion plans, my hope is that this requirement may contribute to your own research goals beyond this seminar.


[Pre-Fall Note: Please note that this is a tentative list of readings, as I am still keeping an eye out for new papers on many of these topics and fine-tuning the papers I assign. Once the semester starts, new readings may get added or may replace those below depending on the interests of the seminar attendees] 


Class 2 – Three levels: What constitutes an understanding of vision?

Jonas, E., & Kording, K. P. (2017). Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor? PLOS Computational Biology, 13(1), e1005268. DOI

Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. New York, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Co., Inc.

Webb, B. (2006). Transformation, encoding and representation. Current Biology, 16(6), R184–R185. DOI

Class 3 – Brain reading: What can we learn about the mind from the brain?

Brette, R. (2019). Is coding a relevant metaphor for the brain? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1–44. DOI

de-Wit, L., Alexander, D., Ekroll, V., & Wagemans, J. (2016). Is neuroimaging measuring information in the brain? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(5), 1415–1428. DOI

Guest, O., & Love, B. C. (2017). What the success of brain imaging implies about the neural code. ELife, 6, e21397. DOI

Krakauer, J. W., Ghazanfar, A. A., Gomez-Marin, A., MacIver, M. A., & Poeppel, D. (2017). Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias. Neuron, 93(3), 480–490. DOI

Ritchie, J. B., Kaplan, D. M., & Klein, C. (2019). Decoding the Brain: Neural Representation and the Limits of Multivariate Pattern Analysis in Cognitive Neuroscience. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 70(2), 581–607. DOI

Class 4 – Things happening: What are the units of perception?

Liverence, B. M., & Scholl, B. J. (2012). Discrete events as units of perceived time. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 38(3), 549–554. DOI

Ongchoco, J. D. K., & Scholl, B. J. (in press). How to create objects with your mind: From object-based attention to attention-based objects. Psychological Science, 20.

Scholl, B. J. (2001). Objects and attention: The state of the art. Cognition, 80(1), 1–46. DOI

Strickland, B., & Scholl, B. J. (2015). Visual perception involves event-type representations: The case of containment versus occlusion. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(3), 570–580. DOI

Class 5 – Must’ve missed it: How we become aware of anything in the first place

Chen, H., & Wyble, B. (2015). Amnesia for object attributes: Failure to report attended information that had just reached conscious awareness. Psychological Science, 26(2), 203–210. DOI

Maier, M., & Abdel Rahman, R. (2018). Native Language Promotes Access to Visual Consciousness. Psychological Science, 29(11), 1757–1772. DOI

Sergent, C. (2018). The offline stream of conscious representations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1755), 20170349. DOI

Tsuchiya, N., Wilke, M., Frässle, S., & Lamme, V. A. F. (2015). No-Report Paradigms: Extracting the True Neural Correlates of Consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(12), 757–770. DOI

Ward, E. J., Bear, A., & Scholl, B. J. (2016). Can you perceive ensembles without perceiving individuals?: The role of statistical perception in determining whether awareness overflows access. Cognition, 152, 78–86. DOI

Ward, E. J., & Scholl, B. J. (2015). Inattentional blindness reflects limitations on perception, not memory: Evidence from repeated failures of awareness. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(3), 722–727. DOI


Class 6 – What is that?: How we recognize objects

Cohen, M. A., Alvarez, G. A., Nakayama, K., & Konkle, T. (2017). Visual search for object categories is predicted by the representational architecture of high-level visual cortex. Journal of Neurophysiology, 117(1), 388–402. DOI

Gauthier, I., & Tarr, M. J. (2016). Visual Object Recognition: Do We (Finally) Know More Now Than We Did? Annual Review of Vision Science, 2(1), 377–396. DOI

Nako, R., Wu, R., & Eimer, M. (2014). Rapid guidance of visual search by object categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, 40(1), 50–60. DOI

Saarela, T. P., & Landy, M. S. (2015). Integration trumps selection in object recognition. Current Biology: CB, 25(7), 920–927. DOI


Class 7 – Where am I?: Perceiving scenes and objects in (and out of) context

Bonner, M. F., & Epstein, R. A. (2017). Coding of navigational affordances in the human visual system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(18), 4793–4798. DOI

Neri, P. (2014). Semantic Control of Feature Extraction from Natural Scenes. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(6), 2374–2388. DOI

Oliva, A., & Torralba, A. (2007). The role of context in object recognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(12), 520–527. DOI

Võ, M. L.-H., & Wolfe, J. M. (2013). Differential Electrophysiological Signatures of Semantic and Syntactic Scene Processing. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1816–1823. DOI

Class 8 – Gotta remember this: How we reason about objects when they are only in memory

Bainbridge, W. A., Isola, P., & Oliva, A. (2013). The intrinsic memorability of face photographs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(4), 1323–1334. DOI

Brady, T. F., Konkle, T., Alvarez, G. A., & Oliva, A. (2008). Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(38), 14325–14329. DOI


Class 9 – Why did that happen?: Perceiving causality and causal relationships

Chen, Y.-C., & Scholl, B. J. (2016). The Perception of History: Seeing Causal History in Static Shapes Induces Illusory Motion Perception. Psychological Science, 27(6), 923–930. DOI

Choi, H., & Scholl, B. J. (2006). Measuring causal perception: Connections to representational momentum? Acta Psychologica, 123(1–2), 91–111. DOI

Spröte, P., Schmidt, F., & Fleming, R. W. (2016). Visual perception of shape altered by inferred causal history. Scientific Reports, 6, 36245. DOI


Class 10 – Will that eat me (or can I eat it?): The perception of animacy and animate objects

Gao, T., McCarthy, G., & Scholl, B. J. (2010). The Wolfpack Effect: Perception of Animacy Irresistibly Influences Interactive Behavior. Psychological Science, 21(12), 1845–1853. DOI

Looser, C. E., & Wheatley, T. (2010). The Tipping Point of Animacy: How, When, and Where We Perceive Life in a Face. Psychological Science, 21(12), 1854–1862. DOI

Koldewyn, K., Hanus, P., & Balas, B. (2014). Visual adaptation of the perception of “life”: Animacy is a basic perceptual dimension of faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21(4), 969–975. DOI


Class 11 – Dealing with other people: Visual cognition in a social context

Balas, B., & Saville, A. (2015). N170 face specificity and face memory depend on hometown size. Neuropsychologia, 69, 211–217. DOI

Heider, F. (1944). Social perception and phenomenal causality. Psychological Review, 51, 358–374. doi:10.1037/h0055425

Olivola, C. Y., Funk, F., & Todorov, A. (2014). Social attributions from faces bias human choices. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(11), 566–570. DOI

Smith, E. L., Grabowecky, M., & Suzuki, S. (2008). Self-awareness affects vision. Current Biology, 18(10), R414–R415. DOI


Class 12 – That’s beautiful!: Are our aesthetic preferences rooted in perception?

Chen, Y.-C., & Scholl, B. J. (2014). Seeing and liking: Biased perception of ambiguous figures consistent with the “inward bias” in aesthetic preferences. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21(6), 1444–1451. DOI

Hubbard, T. L. (2005). Representational momentum and related displacements in spatial memory: A review of the findings. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 12(5), 822–851. DOI

Palmer, S. E., Schloss, K. B., & Sammartino, J. (2013). Visual Aesthetics and Human Preference. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 77–107. DOI


Class 13 – I see, therefore I am: Individual differences in visual cognition

Beaty, R. E., Kenett, Y. N., Christensen, A. P., Rosenberg, M. D., Benedek, M., Chen, Q., … Silvia, P. J. (2018). Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(5), 1087–1092. DOI

Linhares, A. (2000). A glimpse at the metaphysics of Bongard problems. Artificial Intelligence, 121(1–2), 251–270. DOI

Melnick, M. D., Harrison, B. R., Park, S., Bennetto, L., & Tadin, D. (2013). A Strong Interactive Link between Sensory Discriminations and Intelligence. Current Biology, 23(11), 1013–1017. DOI


Class 14 – The future is now: What can we learn about the mind from machines?

Lake, B. M., Ullman, T. D., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Gershman, S. J. (2017). Building machines that learn and think like people. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40. DOI

Ward, E. J. (2019). Exploring Perceptual Illusions in Deep Neural Networks [Preprint]. DOI


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