2018 Ken Nakayama Medal for Excellence in Vision Science

The Vision Sciences Society is honored to present George Sperling with the 2018 Ken Nakayama Medal for Excellence in Vision Science.

The Ken Nakayama Medal is in honor of Professor Ken Nakayama’s contributions to the Vision Sciences Society, as well as his innovations and excellence to the domain of vision sciences.

The winner of the Ken Nakayama Medal receives this honor for high-impact work that has made a lasting contribution in vision science in the broadest sense. The nature of this work can be fundamental, clinical or applied. The Medal is not a lifetime career award and is open to all career stages.

The medal will be presented during the VSS Awards session on Monday, May 21, 2018, 12:30 pm in Talk Room 1-2.

George Sperling

Department of Cognitive Sciences, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, and the Institute of Mathematical Behavioral Sciences, University of California, Irvine

George Sperling attended public school in New York City. He received a B.S. in mathematics from the University of Michigan, an M.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Harvard, both in Experimental Psychology.

For his doctoral thesis, Sperling introduced the method of partial report to measure the capacity and decay rate of visual sensory memory, which was renamed iconic memory by Ulrich Neisser. To measure the information outflow from iconic memory, Sperling introduced post-stimulus masking to terminate iconic persistence, and confirmed this with an auditory synchronization paradigm: Subjects adjusted an auditory click to be simultaneous with the perceived onset and on other trials with the perceived termination of visible information. The interclick duration defined the duration of visible persistence.

Sperling’s first theoretical venture was a feed-forward gain control model based on shunting inhibition, formalized with a mathematician, Mohan Sondhi. It accounted for the change of visual flicker sensitivity with light intensity and for Barlow’s observation that visual receptive fields change from pure excitation in the dark to antagonistic center-surround in the light. Subsequently, Sperling observed that this same model, with internal noise following the gain control, also accounted for Weber’s Law. For binocular vision, Sperling proposed a dynamic, energy-well model (a pre-catastrophe theory “catastrophe” model) to account for multiple stable states in vergence-accommodation as well as for Julesz’s hysteresis phenomena in binocular fusion. With Jan van Santen, Sperling elaborated Reichardt’s beetle-motion-detection model for human psychophysics, and experimentally confirmed five counter-intuitive model predictions. Shortly afterwards, Charlie Chubb and Sperling defined a large class visual stimuli (which they called “second-order”) that were easily perceived as moving but were invisible to the Reichard model. These could be made visible to the Reichard model by prior contrast rectification (absolute value or square), thereby defining the visual pre-processing of a second motion system. With Zhong-Lin Lu, Sperling found yet another class of stimuli that produced a strong motion perceptions but were invisible to both Reichard (first-order) and second-order motion detecting systems. They proposed these stimuli were processed by a third-order motion system that operated on a salience map and, unlike the first- and second-order systems, was highly influenced by attention. To characterize these three motion-detection systems, they developed pure stimuli that exclusively stimulated each of the three motion system. More recently, Jian Ding and Sperling used interocular out-of-phase sinewave grating stimuli to precisely measure the contribution of each eye to a fused binocular percept. This method has been widely adopted to assess treatments of binocular disorders.

Twenty five years after his thesis work, Sperling returned to attention research with a graduate student, Adam Reeves, to study attention reaction times of unobservable shifts of visual attention which they measured with the same precision as concurrent finger-press motor reaction times. Their basic experiment was then greatly elaborated to produce hundreds different data points. A simple (3-parameter) attention gating model that involved briefly opening an attention gate to short-term memory accurately accounted for the hundreds of results. Subsequently, Erich Weichselgartner and Sperling showed that the shifts of visual attention in a Posner-type attention-cued reaction time experiment could be fully explained by independent spatial and temporal attention gates. In a study of dual visual attention tasks, Melvin Melchner and Sperling demonstrated the first Attention Operating Characteristics (AOCs). Sperling and Barbara Dosher showed how AOCs, the ROCs of Signal Detection Theory, and macro-economic theory all used the same underlying utility model. Shui-I Shih and Sperling revisited the partial-report paradigm to show that when attention shifted from one row of letters to another, attention moved concurrently to all locations. Together, these attention experiments showed that visual spatial attention functions like the transfer of power from one fixed spotlight to another, rather than like a moving spotlight. Most recently, Sperling, Peng Sun, Charlie Chubb, and Ted Wright, developed efficient methods for measuring the perceptual attention filters that define feature attention.

Sperling owes what success he has had to his many wonderful mentors and collaborators. Not fully satisfied with these fifty-plus years of research, Sperling still hopes to do better in the future.