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Social Saliency: Visual Psychophysics and Single-Neuron Recordings in Humans


Wang, Shuo (2014) Social Saliency: Visual Psychophysics and Single-Neuron Recordings in Humans. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z90Z718H.


My thesis studies how people pay attention to other people and the environment. How does the brain figure out what is important and what are the neural mechanisms underlying attention? What is special about salient social cues compared to salient non-social cues? In Chapter I, I review social cues that attract attention, with an emphasis on the neurobiology of these social cues. I also review neurological and psychiatric links: the relationship between saliency, the amygdala and autism. The first empirical chapter then begins by noting that people constantly move in the environment. In Chapter II, I study the spatial cues that attract attention during locomotion using a cued speeded discrimination task. I found that when the motion was expansive, attention was attracted towards the singular point of the optic flow (the focus of expansion, FOE) in a sustained fashion. The more ecologically valid the motion features became (e.g., temporal expansion of each object, spatial depth structure implied by distribution of the size of the objects), the stronger the attentional effects. However, compared to inanimate objects and cues, people preferentially attend to animals and faces, a process in which the amygdala is thought to play an important role. To directly compare social cues and non-social cues in the same experiment and investigate the neural structures processing social cues, in Chapter III, I employ a change detection task and test four rare patients with bilateral amygdala lesions. All four amygdala patients showed a normal pattern of reliably faster and more accurate detection of animate stimuli, suggesting that advantageous processing of social cues can be preserved even without the amygdala, a key structure of the “social brain”. People not only attend to faces, but also pay attention to others’ facial emotions and analyze faces in great detail. Humans have a dedicated system for processing faces and the amygdala has long been associated with a key role in recognizing facial emotions. In Chapter IV, I study the neural mechanisms of emotion perception and find that single neurons in the human amygdala are selective for subjective judgment of others’ emotions. Lastly, people typically pay special attention to faces and people, but people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) might not. To further study social attention and explore possible deficits of social attention in autism, in Chapter V, I employ a visual search task and show that people with ASD have reduced attention, especially social attention, to target-congruent objects in the search array. This deficit cannot be explained by low-level visual properties of the stimuli and is independent of the amygdala, but it is dependent on task demands. Overall, through visual psychophysics with concurrent eye-tracking, my thesis found and analyzed socially salient cues and compared social vs. non-social cues and healthy vs. clinical populations. Neural mechanisms underlying social saliency were elucidated through electrophysiology and lesion studies. I finally propose further research questions based on the findings in my thesis and introduce my follow-up studies and preliminary results beyond the scope of this thesis in the very last section, Future Directions.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:social, saliency, amygdala, autism, single-neuron recording, optic flow, change detection, visual search
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Computation and Neural Systems
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Adolphs, Ralph
Thesis Committee:
  • O'Doherty, John P. (chair)
  • Adolphs, Ralph
  • Koch, Christof
  • Shimojo, Shinsuke
  • Tsao, Doris Y.
  • Rutishauser, Ueli
Defense Date:27 May 2014
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05122014-203347930
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8230
Deposited By: Shuo Wang
Deposited On:29 May 2014 21:55
Last Modified:30 Aug 2022 22:46

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