About Us

This project is a collaboration of members of the multi-institutional Perceptual Expertise Network (PEN) and the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC). The project is led by Vanderbilt University’s Category Laboratory (CatLab), directed by Dr. Thomas Palmeri (thomas.j.palmeri@vanderbilt.edu).

There are many kinds of experts. Some people are expert at solving physics problems, playing chess, making medical diagnoses, or performing athletic movements. We focus on perceptual experts. Birders and ornithologists, as well as radiologists, mycologists, firefighters, and other specialists are noted for their remarkable ability to accurately and rapidly recognize, categorize, and identify objects and events within their domain of expertise. Understanding the unique abilities of experts can have important real-world implications for enhancing the development of expertise in the workplace.

But understanding perceptual expertise is more than characterizing the behavior of individuals with idiosyncratic skills in highly specialized domains. Perceptual expertise may also explain some of the unique aspects of what might be called everyday expertise, recognizing such things as faces, words, or letters. Viewing perceptual expertise as the endpoint of the normal trajectory of learning, rather than as an idiosyncratic skill, allows us to exploit studies of experts to understand the general principles and limits of human learning and plasticity. Viewing faces, words, and letters as domains of perceptual expertise can yield new insights into how ravages of brain damage might lead to the perceptual and cognitive deficits seen in autism, dyslexia, agnosia, and other conditions, and can possibly lead to breakthroughs in education and treatment.

Our work is made possible by grants from and the National Science Foundation and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.