Northeastern professor wins Rising Star award from Association of Psychological Science for work on visual perception, consciousness

headshot of Jorge Morales
Jorge Morales, assistant professor of psychology and philosophy. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When the layperson tries to imagine what a professional philosopher does, they might picture someone smoking a pipe or stroking a considerably unkempt beard while sitting in an office surrounded by dusty tomes filled with inscrutable language.

Such a portrait may well befit descriptions of 19th and 20th century philosophical thought à la Bertrand Russell and Karl Marx; but it is less evocative of how academic philosophers in this day and age carry on with the business of asking fundamental questions about human existence. 

Enter Jorge Morales, an assistant professor of psychology and philosophy at Northeastern, whose background is in the “philosophy of mind”—a subset of philosophical inquiry that focuses on, among other things, phenomenology, consciousness and subjectivity. 

“My main philosophical influences come from analytic philosophy and the British Empiricists, but early in my career I was trained in the history of philosophy from which I still draw inspiration,” Morales says. 

Morales’ philosophical work has been psychologists and neuroscientists, and his empirical work has been useful to philosophers. Indeed, to think about problems associated with the mind and consciousness in 21st century terms is really to be concerned with questions across a range of disciplines, including psychology and neuroscience, Morales says. 

Not all theoretical philosophical concerns neatly map on to an affiliated scientific field, but almost all, he says, intersect with the hard sciences, which provide philosophically-minded academics with new tools they can use to address age-old questions. 

“One goal of my research is to offer empirical answers to questions philosophers have been asking for centuries,” Morales, who runs the interdisciplinary Subjectivity Lab at Northeastern, says.

“My work lies at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, and it aims to understand conscious experiences,” Morales adds. “Some of the questions that we ask include: How do we become aware of our surroundings? What functions does consciousness serve—couldn’t we do things unconsciously just fine? How do we know our own minds? How does our brain experience the world and itself? How can we tell if a patient with disorders of consciousness, for example, in a vegetative state, is conscious or not?”

Asking these sorts of questions has earned him a special recognition in the form of an Association for Psychological Science Rising Star award. The award is meant to recognize “researchers whose innovative work has already advanced the field and signals great potential for their continued contributions.” The association announced the recipients of this year’s awards in February. 

Relying less on pure argumentation and more on experimentation, Morales conducts his work in a laboratory setting using applied methods—and with real experimental subjects. 

In one paper that sought to understand how human beings experience three-dimensional objects in a world where we first encounter them as two-dimensional projections in the back of the eye, Morales and his colleagues recruited over 400 subjects to put to the test a longstanding philosophical insight—one that comes from the so-called British Empiricists.

When a coin, which presents as a circle, is tilted in depth, human beings can typically infer the circular shape it has from the ellipse, or oval, it projects while tilted. Testing this in real-time, Morales and his team found that, when asked to identify a truly elliptical object that had been placed next to a rotated circular object, subjects took longer to do so when presented with a rotated circular object than with a head-on circular object. 

“I think that the importance of this result is that it suggests that objects appear to us to have their true three-dimensional shape, but we also experience them in the way they present to us, from our point of view, with their two-dimensional particularities,” Morales says. “That’s why it takes us longer to identify an oval when it’s next to a rotated circle that projects an oval: because they both look similar even thought they have clearly different shapes.”

Morales adds that it’s “as if we can never fully overcome the visual subjective perspective with which we see the world despite correctly representing its objective properties.”

Morales says that many experts still contest the assertions put forward by British Empiricists, such as John Locke and David Hume, as it relates to these issues of perception; which is why testing them with actual subjects can provide insights.

“A centuries-old philosophical debate asks whether objects of different distal shapes bear a representational similarity to one another when their perspectival shapes match,” researchers wrote

“Here, we test this question empirically,” they wrote. “We demonstrate such representational similarity by showing that perspectival shapes influence basic mechanisms of perception and attention, even after distal shape is known. Objects are stamped with the perceiver’s perspective: We do not see the world completely separate from our point of view.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.