Name: Dr Tim J. Smith
Age range: 30-35
Research institution: Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London
Research career length: 11 years
Research Council: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Medical Research Council (MRC)
I am also funded by the Leverhulme Trust
Location: London, England
I investigate how we attend to, perceive and remember visual scenes.
A-levels: Mathematics, Physics, Design & Technology, General Studies
BSc (Joint Honours) in Artificial Intelligence & Psychology, University of Edinburgh. PhD in Cognitive Science, University of Edinburgh
Lecturer and BSc Admissions Tutor, Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London
Temporary Lecturer, Psychology, University of Edinburgh
Postdoctoral researcher in Psychology, University of Edinburgh
Temporary Lecturer in Informatics, University of Edinburgh
Research Assistant, Informatics, University of Edinburgh
PhD in Informatics, University of Edinburgh.
Please give us a description of your job / research, and tell us what inspired you to do what you're doing...
My job is to investigate how we see the world. I am currently a Lecturer in Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London. I investigate how people attend to, perceive, and remember the visual world. I look at how people make sense of photographs, videos, the real-world and virtual environments. To do this I use a variety of experimental techniques including behavioural tests, eye tracking (recording where you look), electroencephalography (EEG, i.e. electrical brain activity) and computational modelling of brain processes. These techniques allow me to know how people break the visual world down into chunks of information that they can make sense of.
When I was a kid I was fascinated by two things: science and film. My love for science drove me to question how everything worked and to take things apart (much to my parents' annoyance). They quickly realised that the best (and safest) way to fuel my interest in how things worked was to buy me a computer so that I could construct (and destruct) my own little systems. Back in the eighties the pinnacle of home computing was the ZX Spectrum with a cassette drive. Ah the fond memories of listening to the squealing of the cassette as a program loaded! My interest in computing was sparked and later developed into a fascination with the idea of creating an intelligent computer: Would it someday be possible to build a computer that could think like a human? My other childhood passion was film. I enjoyed nothing more than losing myself in the fantasy world of a film or television program. Being whisked away to distant places and feeling real excitement, fear, and joy for the patterns of light dancing across the screen. I acted out my passion for film by watching as many classic and influential films I could get hold of, and learning to write my own short stories and screen plays. One day I hoped I would understand the power of cinema. At school, fusing my two interests often proved tricky. At GCSE I tried to balance my interests by taking English, Art and the Sciences. When I started planning for University I realised that I would have to commit to either a Science or an Arts route and they had incompatible requirements. Deciding to follow through my interest in Artificial Intelligence I took Maths, Physics and Design Technology A-levels. The Design and Technology A-level proved a very good choice as I was able to keep my visual creativity active through design and also develop an interest in Psychology. One of our projects was to perform an experiment investigating how a system or artefact functioned. I chose the human brain (!) and performed a series of psychology experiments testing how sensitive our hearing, touch, and taste is. I think my teachers didn't know what to do with me.
Fortunately, when I got to University I found the perfect outlet for my combined interest in Psychology and technology in Artificial Intelligence. The course allowed me to learn computing theory and practice whilst also learning how the human mind operates. One of the areas of Psychology that interested me the most was vision. I wanted to know how we saw the world primarily because I wanted to understand how we were able to see film. How is it that we can make sense of the highly artificial patterns of light projected on the cinema screen and be so incredibly moved by them? Sadly, Psychology did not have an answer. But I wasn't going to give in that easily. After my Undergraduate I tried to answer the question myself in a PhD . The result of my PhD was a theory and experimental evidence of how we perceive film. Since my PhD I have been fortunate enough to have been able to continue my research into all aspects of visual cognition. Hopefully one day my research will lead to a full understanding of how we make sense of the world so that we can build computers that see the world as we do.
Describe your typical day...
I now live and work in London. An average day begins with a cycle journey into work past some of the famous London sights including the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, and Trafalgar Square. Birkbeck is located in Bloomsbury, right in the heart of London. I divide my time between my office and the experimental lab. In the lab I run experiments with volunteers who look at images or videos on a computer screen whilst I manipulate features of the image. As they are looking at the images I am recording how they process the images either with an eye tracker or EEG electrode cap. This allows me to understand where they are looking, how this relates to what they see and understand and how the manipulations I make alter their behaviour. This can often entail making things disappear, appear, or change without people noticing. Think of me as a hi-tech Magician; when I am not running experiments I'll be analysing the results in order to see whether the behaviour matches my theories and writing up the results in articles that (hopefully) will be published in academic journals and books. When not conducting my own research I am supervising undergraduate and post-graduate students and lecturing research methods and cognitive psychology.
Do you have a 'pet project'?
Understanding how we perceive film. I create films in which the same action occurs but the editing is slightly different and see how it changes the way we look at the film and what we see. I find it fascinating how sensitive our experience of a film can be to tiny decisions made by film directors, yet Psychologists know so little about this relationship.
What do you love most about science / engineering or maths?
The quest. Finding a question you are desperate to find an answer for, realising there currently isn't an answer and creating a novel way of investigating it. There is always a great excitement after you have run an experiment and you are able to see whether the results match your hypotheses. It is the same excitement I had as a child when taking things apart. Only know it is the human mind I am taking apart using clever behavioural tests. I don't think my volunteers would take too kindly to me physically deconstructing their brains as I did as a child.
Name one quirky / crazy fact about your job...
We move our eyes about three times every second. Every time we move our eyes we are blind for a very brief period (about 50ms). Our brains fill in this blank using what we see after the eye movement creating an illusion of continuous vision. This means that during an average 16 hour day 144 minutes of what we see is an illusion. Almost two and a half hours of what we see isn't real!
Where I live...
London. I'm originally from the Wirral and spent a large chunk of my life during University and post-graduate in Edinburgh. Moving to London was initially a shock after so long in Scotland but I’m loving the pace of life now.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my free time I like to travel, play Ultimate Frisbee, 5-a-side football and cycle. And, of course, going to the cinema.
Birkbeck, University of London
Watching people watch films!