BCSC 220: Syllabus

Fall 2022

Time & Location

Classes will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:25-4:40 pm in Meliora room 269. This is an in-person course.


Instructor: Michele Rucci
Office Hours. 4:00-5:30pm Friday, also available over zoom. Please make sure to send email in advance to schedule the meeting.
Office. Room 309 initially then 319 of Meliora Hall. Meetings will also be held online.

Co-Instructor: Alessandro Benedetto

Course Description

Aristotle described visual perception as "to know what is where by looking". This commonsense description of what it means to see reflects our phenomenal experience with the ease and simplicity of perception. This apparent simplicity is the first of many illusions that students will encounter in the course. Computers have achieved grandmaster status in chess, yet still cannot solve vision problems that young children handle with ease every second of their waking day.

This course will provide an inter-disciplinary view of modern research into how the human brain solves the problems involved in sensory perception. Topics covered include the nature of light in the environment, the physical properties of the eye, the structure and function of the visual nervous system, the visual functions of humans and other animals, including how we perceive the three-dimensional structure of the world, how we recognize objects, and how visual information is used to control action in the world. The course will also deal with clinical aspects of vision—optical correction, disease, and effects of brain damage— as well as examining processes common to all sensory systems.

This year, the driving theme of the course will be active vision: the role of the observer’s behavior in facilitating visual processes and enabling the formation of visual representations. This broad theme will serve as a scaffolding for examining a variety of visual functions and impairments.

Students will read and analyze contemporary and classical research articles, particularly seminal ones. These are studies that have forced researches to re-conceptualize, sometimes in non-intuitive ways, how vision (and more broadly, sensory perception) works. Through lectures, research articles, and classroom discussion, students will be exposed to the questions and debates that define contemporary perceptual science.


The course reviews efforts to understand visual perception within the context of interdisciplinary brain sciences. In order to accomplish this goal, we will include the following materials:

  1. Practical, hands-on demonstration of many striking phenomena in visual perception.
  2. Presentation of basic findings in visual neuroscience, providing a comprehensive picture of some of the important advances made in this area over the past 30 years. We will review the anatomical structures of neuronal networks in the visual system, the physiological properties of the neurons which compose them, and their possible perceptual functions. This material will provide exposure to one of the most intensively investigated areas of systems neuroscience.
  3. Introduction to some of the analytic tools that scientists use to study visual perception. We will describe how various measurements are made and show examples of how scientific ideas can be rigorously tested. We will also show how these same techniques are now being applied much more broadly in areas that range from the study of individual nerve cells in the visual system to the analysis of behavior both in experimental animals and in clinical patients who have suffered specific brain damage. We will show how relatively simple experiments on human observers have revealed surprisingly specific properties of the nervous system.

Course Organization

The course will be organized as a mixture of lectures and seminars. The main goal of the course is to critically consider contemporary research in vision; thus, many of the class meetings will focus on discussions of research papers, especially recent review articles on selected topics within vision science. A certain amount of background is needed to understand much of the material; thus, interspersed with the paper discussions, lectures based on readings from textbooks will ensure that students are up to speed.

The study of perception blends science and introspection, offering a valuable opportunity for the non-scientist to appreciate ideas and methods, as well as personally experience the excitement of scientific investigation. This is possible because perceptual phenomena can often be immediately experienced and appreciated. We will conduct simple experiments in class and use material aimed at providing a set of shared first-hand observations for the students, immediately enabling them to enter the role of the scientist, to find meaning from their own observations, and to compare their interpretations with material from the lectures.

Participation: By its nature, the success of the class depends largely on the students’ involvement. Participation in class discussion is very important. Thus, in order to make the course work, students will have to come to class prepared – having done the reading and writing assignments for the class. To ensure that this happens, you will need to meet at least once a week in study groups, to coordinate the presentation of the paper and review the materials to be presented in class.

Course Schedule

Classes will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:25-4:40 pm in Meliora room 269. This is an in person course.

Following the academic calendar there will be no class on October 11th and November 24th (Thanksgiving). Last day of class is Tuesday December 13th.

This course follows the College credit hour policy for four-credit courses. This course meets two times weekly and includes independent out-of-class assignments for an average of one academic hour per week. In this course, students will complete the group activities using readings and other class materials. These activities include review of the materials discussed in previous lectures and analysis of the paper assigned for next lecture.

Textbook, Readings, and Lecture Notes

Reading for the course will include book chapters and research articles from the vision literature. Copies of reading material will be posted on the course blackboard site.

Reference textbook: A useful (but not required) resource is the book “Sensation and Perception” by Jeremy Wolfe et al., Sinauer Associates. This book provides a simple introduction to relevant themes and the associated technical vocabulary without imposing complex technical descriptions. It gives excellent introductory overviews of the fields of sensory perception and brain physiology.

More advanced textbook: For those who want to gain further information, the book “Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology” by Stephen E. Palmer contains more detailed treatments of several of the topics that will be covered. Occasionally, we will use examples from this book.

Assignments & Evaluation

In this course, all students will be required to take a mid-term exam, give scientific presentations, participate in the class discussion, and take a final exam. Attendance is mandatory for this course.

Mid-term exam: The mid-term exam consists a set of multiple-choice questions (70 quizzes). It will be taken during the regular class time of October 20th.

Scientific Presentations: Each week we will review one or two recent articles from the published literature. We will get an overview of the materials by means of a slide presentation (approximately 30-40 minutes) followed by a global group discussion led by the speakers.

Each week, a group of students will take charge to introduce the article and lead the discussion. Each student will present for ~15 minutes. Speakers are expected to: coordinate the materials in small group meetings preceding the class; prepare clear and nicely formatted power-point slides and distribute a pdf copy of their slides before class by posting them on blackboard. The presentation should follow the structure of the article, going from one figure or set of results to the next.

Following the presentation, the speakers and the instructor will lead a group discussion on the new knowledge offered by the study and the new emerging questions. Note that grades will be based on the participation in the discussion as well as on the actual presentation. To this end, it is important to remark that there are no trivial questions in vision science. You should not feel shy about expressing your ideas.

Prior to your talk, please plan a meeting with the instructor if questions emerge in the preparatory group meetings and/or you want to get feedback for improving your presentation.

This course is also open to graduate students. It is expected that graduate participants will provide a deeper level of analysis both in the presentations of the materials and in the general class discussion.

Final Exam: The final exam will consist of a final presentation (or a paper, if you so prefer) describing a visual illusion and summarizing research on its possible "explanations".

The presentation (15-30 minutes) should first describe the phenomenon and then explain in detail at least one possible mechanism underlying its emergence.

Papers should be clearly written, organized, and well-formatted (maximum space allowed: 6 pages, 11 pt font). A pdf of the paper should be submitted electronically via email to the instructor. You should have at least five scholarly references for the presentation. Included in these five can be one textbook or website.

Grades will be based on the mid-term (25%), the quality of the scientific presentation during the course (25%), your participation in the class discussions (25%) and the final exam (25%).

Academic Honesty

Students and faculty at the University must agree to adhere to the highest standards of academic honesty in all of the work that we do. As freshmen, students read and sign an academic honesty policy statement to indicate that they understand the general principles upon which our work is based. The College Board on Academic Honesty website gives further information on our policies and procedures.

In this course the following additional requirements are in effect: You are required to discuss course readings and assignments with your fellow students. All written work must be done independently and not in collaboration with anyone else. In order to make appropriate help available for your essays, I encourage you to consult with me and with the College Writing Center.

Additional Information

Email communication: There is a reliance on email communications in online courses. Emails from Blackboard will come from your instructor, but they will have headings that include the course information from Blackboard. Sometimes this causes these emails to be classified as Junk or Clutter. Please be sure to review your Junk and Clutter folder early in the term to verify that you are receiving course emails.

Online Etiquette, Anti-discrimination and Harassment Policy: The University strictly prohibits the use of University online resources or facilities, including Blackboard, for the purpose of harassment of any individual or for the posting of any material conflicting with the University's policies (PDF).