Our ‘inner pickpocket’ lets us identify objects just by feeling them

22 May 2019

Image: © Jacob Lund/Stock.adobe.com

It seems we all have the skills to be a pickpocket as researchers find humans can identify what an object looks like without even seeing it.

Have you ever seen an object hidden by a cloth or within someone’s pocket and figured out what it might be? Chances are you would likely guess the right answer based on new research, which has found there’s an ‘inner pickpocket’ in all of us.

Publishing their findings to eLife, researchers from the University of Cambridge, the Central European University and Columbia University have found that the human brain is able to identify properties of an object using purely statistical information.

This shows that what makes successful pickpockets so efficient at their craft is that they are able to spot a wallet or phone in someone’s pocket just by touching it. Likewise, we as humans are able to guess what an object will feel like when looking at it through a window.

In both cases, our brains are breaking up continuous streams of information received by our various senses into distinct chunks. So, in the case of a pickpocket, the indentations on their fingers tell them what an object is; while in the case of the window shopper, they are able to interpret photons as reflections of light from the objects.

While this process might be working subconsciously, the ability to determine what an object is with limited information is critical to how we interact with the world.

‘There’s a secret, statistically savvy pickpocket in all of us’

“We’re looking at how the brain takes in the continuous flow of information it receives and segments it into objects,” said Prof Máté Lengyel, who co-led the research. “The common view is that the brain receives specialised cues, such as edges or occlusions, about where one things ends and another thing begins. But we’ve found that the brain is a really smart statistical machine; it looks for patterns and finds building blocks to construct objects.”

To make this discovery, the researchers designed scenes of several abstract shapes without visible boundaries between them. Participants were asked to either observe the shapes of jigsaw pieces on a screen or to ‘pull’ them apart along a tear line that passed either through or between the objects.

They were then tested on their ability to predict visual and haptic properties, with the results showing participants were able to form the correct mental model of the jigsaw pieces based on these properties and predict how they would respond to being pulled apart.

“These results challenge classical views on how we extract and learn about objects in our environment,” said Lengyel.

“Instead, we’ve shown that general-purpose statistical computations known to operate in even the youngest infants are sufficiently powerful for achieving such cognitive feats. Notably, the participants in our study were not selected for being professional pickpockets – so these results also suggest there is a secret, statistically savvy pickpocket in all of us.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic