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The Total Sum of the Parts

Kevin Gao

Ayse Candan

Psych 1140

Picture this: youre sitting back watching your favorite TV program. That relatively low-

quality audiovisual signal is transmitted to your home at a rate of more than a thousand bits per

second, yet the rate at which you can encode that same information for later retrieval is vastly

lower, with most estimates around a few bits per second (Landauer, 1986). So how exactly does

human perception take care of this gap? The answer is event segmentation, or the idea that

people perceive things in such a way so that the continuity of space/time is segmented into

chunks of meaningful events. In this essay, we will compare two different aspects of event

segmentation described in the two research papers provided Zacks: J. M. & Swallow, K. M.

(2007) and Magliano, J. P., Miller, J. & Zwaan, R. A. (2001). Zacks, J. M. & Swallow, K. M.

(2007) discusses event segmentation in terms of cognitive learning and memory, as well as

general applications. Magliano, J. P., Miller, J. & Zwaan, R. A. (2001) analyzes this phenomenon

in films and event indexing.

In Zacks, J. M. & Swallow, K. M. (2007), we learn that event segmentation is a natural,

ongoing process that occurs automatically. One of the largest pieces of evidence that portrays this

is in how people tend to organize events in films. In (Newtson, 1976; Speer, Swallow, & Zacks,

2003), participants were found categorizing the smaller fine-grained events and lumping them

together into larger, more meaningful events. In (Zacks, Tversky, & Iyer, 2001), the results were

similar, and the participants looked at the whole process of making a bed as if it were divided
into meaningful steps that made up a procedure. (Zacks, Braver, et al., 2001) provides even

stronger insight, creating an experiment that used scanners to monitor brain activity.

Brain activity in certain areas such as the frontal and posterior cortex spiked near and

around the moments of the movie that were categorized as the event boundaries. Brain activity

was larger for coarse-event boundaries than it was for fine- boundaries. Because the data was

received before any debriefing occurred, this suggest that the procedure couldnt have been

tampered by manually driven effort, and thus, it is highly likely that event segmentation happens

naturally without much thought.

This idea shows that not only do people chunk events automatically, but also it reveals

the innate skill that people have of being able to anticipate future events using experience from

long-term memory as well as learning heuristics from our working-memory. The aforementioned

ability to be able to judge boundaries is analyzed more in depth in Magliano, J. P., Miller, J. &

Zwaan, R. A. (2001). Here, the authors establish that a change in any one of the three spatial

features, time, movement, and region, should have a unique impact on situation-based

judgements. Also, it is reasonable to expect that a larger number of shifts at any given point in

the narrative would result in a higher likelihood for any observer to recognize this point or event

as the boundary. In other words, the old event is perceived to have officially stopped, with the

new event perceived to have begun. However, even though adjustments in any of the three

spatial features can trigger event segmentation, changes in a text-based narrative are more

noticeably marked by changes in time rather than region or motion. The reason for this is

because time is a key factor in enabling speech and text comprehension (language relies on

temporal logic), more so than being able to see shifts in region or movement. These three make
up the hierarchy of event-perception hypotheses, the independence hypothesis, the additive

hypothesis, and the medium-independent hypothesis (Magliano, J. P., Miller, J. & Zwaan, R. A.

(2001). Thus, using the previous findings, we are able to explain how we perceive event-driven

actions and why we do so.

Although Magliano, J. P., Miller, J. & Zwaan, R. A. (2001) describes movement features

as a vital aid in segmenting activity, Zacks, J. M. & Swallow, K. M. (2007) reinforces the idea

that movement becomes even more important in segmentation when viewers identify fine-

grained units depicting activities motivated by a purpose (Zacks, 2004), suggesting that people

depend on external sources of information; one recurring source being the tendency to deduce

actors intentions and goals in order to grasp the bigger spectrum of activity. Another piece of

evidence supporting the goal-driven hypothesis comes from the neuroimaging study of reading

events in texts (Speer, Reynolds, & Zacks,in press).

Just like in previous experiments, event boundaries in the narrative correlated with brief

increases in brain activity that matched in timing and location to those for action films, implying

that both location-shifts and shifts in actors goals have huge impacts on event segmentation.

This is backed up with the results of the experiment conducted in Magliano, J. P., Miller, J. &

Zwaan, R. A. (2001). Findings consistent with the event indexing model show that film-viewing

is a multi-faceted form of perception. Each dimension containing the movie events made

independent contributions to perceptions of situation-based events, but only for time and

movement. Shifts in both of these spatial features were enough to trigger a boundary creation in

the mind of the observer, but a shift in region alone did not suffice.
One reason stems from the fact that often, text-based and film stories require the reader to

maintain an understanding of multiple, concurrent storylines that run parallel, but exist in

different areas. These events that occur in different, isolated areas, often happen in the same

temporal time zone, meaning that shifting between the two zones wouldnt create a perceivable

change in narrative. This is another form of automatic segmentation, where the viewer is able to

distinguish the different actions, yet still connect it all back to the overall plot of the narrative.

If we were to organize all of the factors that affect event segmentation, we would notice

that as we move along the spectrum towards the sensory end, features such as sound, lighting,

and contact between actors and objects are what make up the non-active aspect of the narrative,

which are the things that are processed passively by our sense. Toward the conceptual end are

features such as goals and social conventions, which are meaningful factors that we process

actively, perhaps out of interest in a progressing storyline or a general empathetic link to the

storyline. In the middle are the more technical features such as sequential structure, or the order

in which events tend to occur. Here, the focus of these features is providing the viewer with the

necessary environment to be able to balance the passive and active forms of event segmentation.

All of these different types of features are present in the process of perceiving and translating an

event-based experience into the mind, and this spectrums shows that peoples tendency to

segment events derives from a large mix of features that come from the brains ability to create

hierarchical constructs of events.

In reviewing the two papers, weve been able to understand this phenomenon of event

segmentation in more detail. To conclude our findings, we will establish two different concepts

that both hold a place in cognitive neuroscience and that make up event segmentation theory.
One concept is that peoples seemingly unified perception of what is happening now is actually

conjured from a set of memorial representations which are maintained by active neural

processing. Collectively, these representations are known as the working memory, and they are

characterized by a limited capacity and duration (Baddeley, 2003). The other concept is that

comprehension is predictive, encompassing a vast range from vision to language to learning.

These findings suggest that we process the present in part by predicting the near future, which is

hugely significant because it lets us respond to external stimuli in due time. Both of these

concepts cast a different light on event segmentation, but in the end, this shows that the chunking

of experience into separate events enables people to carry out their lives in a continuous and

logical manner.

Magliano, J. P., Miller, J. & Zwaan, R. A. (2001)

Zacks, J. M. & Swallow, K. M. (2007)