Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Looking through the eyes of a monkey

It is not easy to decipher the behaviour of animals, because they have no way of communicating their motives and feelings to us. That is why we have to rely on rather indirect measurements to analyze their behaviour. A new method, developed by the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus literally lets us look through the eyes of animals. Their technique tracks eye movement, and thereby allows us to see what the animal sees. According to the researchers, this helps with improving behavioural studies.

In order to track eye movement, the scientists had to come up with a wearable device. They tested their concept, which includes a backpack with a wireless transmitter, on an orangutan monkey called Tsunami. Because there are two cameras on board, one tracking eye movement, the other one filming the exact same thing that the monkey sees, the scientists can constantly monitor how the animal observes the world. As may be expected, it took a while before the orangutan got used to carrying the device around all day.
Naturally, all recordings had to be analyzed, which is a painstakingly long process. Every eye movement has to be analyzed and related to what is actually happening. What the scientists are trying to get from the analysis is how eye movement relates to certain visual stimuli, and whether the way the eye moves can predict what may happen next in our surroundings. Another important factor is memory; studies ought to show whether having a memory of a certain place affects the way the monkeys view the outside world. As the lead scientist said it himself: "I'm interested in the way we make predictive eye movements to places in the world where the stimulus is yet to appear and whether these predictive eye movements are there to assist the timing and placement of actions or whether they also help high-level mechanisms such as memory for our immediate space and the location of objects within it."

This sort of research could eventually be translated to humans. Naturally, it is impossible to track humans for a long time, as nobody would voluntarily keep walking around with eye tracking equipment. What we find in monkeys may eventually help us explain why animals, including ourselves, act the way we do in response to what we perceive, or what we think we will perceive. In addition, the scientists hope to uncover how animals behave in captivity. Behavioural analysis with eye tracking could help assess whether animals feel at ease while living in a zoo.

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