Studying body movements can give insights into autism, terrorism

October 9th, 2008 - 4:44 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, October 9 (ANI): Researchers at Rutgers University in Newark are examining how people are able to identify the emotional state and intent of others by watching their body movements, such as extending an arm forward to shake hands or raising it higher to protect the face.
Maggie Shiffrar, a professor of psychology, has revealed that the study has been designed to assist the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in identifying possible terrorist threats from the way people move their bodies, and to provide deeper insight into how autistic individuals perceive others.
The researcher, who is being assisted by Associate Professor Kent Harber, says that being able to quickly and accurately interpret body movements from a distance could allow for the identification of potential terrorist activities in crowded areas such as airports, subways and city streets.
Its the same sort of process basketball players use to tell whether someone is going to throw the ball or fake a pass. The question is how to determine which people are best at picking up the cues revealed in body movement and what those cues are, she says.
She believes that her study may lead to the development of computer applications good enough to interpret body movement and identify possible threats.
Shiffrar says that though nearly all people possess some autistic tendencies, those with the fewest autistic tendencies are best at detecting the weak signals provided by body movement, and thus people with very few autistic tendencies are the best at interpreting emotion from body movement.
She has thus far found that people with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to view other people and objects alike, as if they are watching the world through a lens devoid of emotion.
However, people with few autistic tendencies have visual systems that analyse human movement and the movement of objects differently, and thus are able to identify people over objects when presented with limited information.
For their studies, Shiffrar and her colleagues videotape peoples body movements with lights attached to the major joints and then show research participants only the movement of the lights. Lights also are attached to objects such as a moving tractor or a dog, and those light movements too are shown to participants.
The way people move their bodies tell us volumes about their actions, intentions and emotions. To interact well with others, we need to be able to perceive this all accurately. What we hope to determine through our research is whether people with ASD have trouble perceiving human movement because they avoid human contact in order to function, or if it is their visual system that is treating people as objects, says Shiffrar.
The researcher hope that their studies might be useful in developing training programs for people with ASD to help them perceive and understand the intentions and emotional states of people from their body movements. (ANI)

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