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Where do I look, and why?

Emilie Brotherhood reports on the latest in our series of Live Science research residencies.

Look at this picture – how old are the people sitting at the table?

Did you look at the children’s faces? You might have noticed the girl’s boots raised off the floor. The faces and the boots are the biggest clues to the children’s age. From these clues, you would see that they are young. On the other hand, if we asked you to tell us how wealthy you think the family are, the best clues are probably not going to be the children’s faces; you would probably look at the more material possessions, such as the expensive-looking chair.

Your visual brain can process all this information effortlessly, and in milliseconds. In fact, your brain controls almost everything you do. If your brain is injured in some way, or if someone develops a brain disease, it can lead to difficulties in thinking skills. Depending on the areas of the brain that are damaged or diseased, these difficulties can be very specific (for example, a difficulty recognising faces) or broad (for example, speaking, understanding and socialising with people).

Lots of studies show that the way a person moves their eyes around an image can tell us about how they are thinking. If we can map where you move your eyes around an image like the one above, this would be a good way to test thinking skills like understanding a question (language) and how accurate your perception is – all without you saying a word!

We are taking this idea one step further, and developing a test where there are no instructions at all. This will make it easier for people with brain damage and disease to show us their thinking skills. All we ask people to do is to watch a series of dots, images and words.

Here is a map we created to show you how one of our researchers moved their eyes around the screen when they saw this image for a few seconds.

The colours show the areas they were interested in when looking at the picture. Red shows the area of most interest, cooling down to green where they briefly moved their eyes around.  You will notice that they have not looked everywhere in the picture, but have focused mainly on the people’s faces (particularly around the girl’s eyes), and the two cups they are holding.

Even though we are all very different, healthy people do tend to look around certain images in the same way. But we can’t just assume that people will look at our images in the test in the same way – we have to prove it. This is why we are running our experiment at the Science Museum. We need volunteers to show us how they move their eyes around this set of images in particular. Once we collect enough data from healthy volunteers on our images, we can work out what is ‘typical’.

Then we will go back to the Dementia Research Centre, and show exactly the same images to people with a dementia diagnosis. Depending on how early they are in their diagnosis, people with dementia might still move their eyes around the images in some ways very much like other healthy adults. In other ways, they might move their eyes differently. These differences are going to be be very important for us to work out, because in the future, we could use them to establish ways of working out if someone might have a brain disease or not.

If you are interested in helping us, please visit us at Live Science, in the Who Am I? gallery. The Live Science Research Team (from the Dementia Research Centre, UCL) will be there on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays until Saturday 13th May.