What is Motion Perception?

Debra Durkee

Motion perception is the way in which the human mind processes information regarding the movement of objects around it. It also includes the idea of processing the motion of the human body through its surroundings. In addition to allowing the mind to perceive which object is moving through which space, motion perception is also crucial in determining the distance between objects and their sizes.

A film reel is made up of hundreds of individual pictures that include no movement.
A film reel is made up of hundreds of individual pictures that include no movement.

The relationship between how the brain interprets movement around it and how the world is actually moving is the study of motion perception. Components of motion perception are the human body, mind and the visual systems that receive the information. Most individuals process the information they see without thinking about it. The human mind can instantly understand what in the environment is stationary, what is moving, and at what rate respective to each other those moving items are traveling.

When an individual is standing still and sees a dog getting closer, he or she instinctively knows that the dog is in motion, covering the ground between and moving nearer. Similarly, if the individual is walking with the dog beside him or her, and the dog is remaining stationary in its position respective to the person, the brain understands that the dog is also moving at the same rate of speed as the person. However, when an individual is walking down the street and sees the trees along the sidewalk growing larger, getting closer and finally disappearing from the line of sight, it is understood that those trees are stationary and their relative positions are changed by the movement of the person.

Motion perception also refers to the human brain's ability to interpret motion when there is none present. This can be most visibly demonstrated with the example of watching a movie projected onto a screen through a film reel. The film reel itself is made up of hundreds of individual pictures in which there is no movement. However, when they are projected onto the screen at a high rate of speed, the motion perception abilities of the brain translates the single images the eyes see as having fluid movement.

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All components of vision work together in order to allow the human mind to put together an accurate picture of what is going on in the nearby environment. Peripheral vision, or the ability to see something out of the corner of the eye, is poor at detecting details but excellent at seeing motion. Individuals who cannot perceive motion have a very rare condition called akinetopsia.

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Discussion Comments


Our motion perception is far from perfect. We actually make many mistakes and can fall into fallacies because of how it works. For example, there is the aperture problem where a small window of vision causes our neurons to react in a certain way and "see" a certain movement, when the movement may actually be in a different direction. So we are prone to fallacies because of our vision.


@dlljohn-- That's probably right. We do need to pay attention to what's moving first, so that we may react appropriately. This is fairly straightforward.

Knowing how fast objects move in relation to one another and determining what is moving, is a more complex process though. Most of us don't stop to think about it because our brain does it automatically and very quickly. But it's actually a very cool process with several steps of perception and recognition.


I'm not an expert on this topic but I am interested in it. Our perception seems to be very sensitive to motion. I've noticed that when I enter a room, I notice the moving object before anything else. I'm guessing that this is some sort of an evolutionary development to help us guard ourselves from threats, such as wild animals in nature.

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