Painting reality: PhD candidate explores how our brains construct the world

PhD candidate Mavi Ruiz-Blondet Image Credit: Jennifer Micale.
PhD candidate Mavi Ruiz-Blondet
PhD candidate Mavi Ruiz-Blondet Photography: Jennifer Micale.

What you see isn’t really there.

The wall is real enough — smooth when you touch it, a canvas of light and shadow cast by the nearby window shades. But what you actually see — the tan coat hanging in the corner, the slender spine of the coatrack — is a hallucination, no different in some ways from the strange shape of dreams.

Traditionally, we view perception as a photographer, snapping picture-perfect images of reality, explained Maria V. Ruiz-Blondet, a PhD student at Binghamton University’s Harpur College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It would be more appropriate to think of perception as a painter with a good deal more artistic license.

“All perception is a hallucination. Our brain is continually providing these models of reality and we’re testing these models by interacting with the world,” said Ruiz-Blondet, who goes by Mavi.

Her focus on perception came from a different lens entirely: a fascination with the possibilities of brain-computer interfaces that she first developed after graduating from high school in her hometown of Lima, Peru. Biomedical engineering wasn’t an available major in her home country, so she opted for electrical engineering for her bachelor’s degree, and looked into graduate school opportunities abroad to pursue her interests.

She applied to five schools, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, but Binghamton University proved to be the best fit — underscored by her first visit.

“Binghamton seemed like a beautiful European city. It had that sense,” said Ruiz-Blondet, who will graduate this May after an educational journey spanning more than seven years. “It ended up being a great choice because of the people I met here.”

Broadening her perspective

She earned her master’s in biomedical engineering before shifting her field to cognitive psychology for her doctoral degree. Working with Harpur faculty member Sarah Laszlo and Zhanpeng Jin of the University at Buffalo, Ruiz-Blondet researched ways to positively identify individuals using their “brain prints,” or electroencephalogram (EEG) readings of electrical patterns in the brain. Her master’s thesis received the Katie C. Root Award for outstanding theses at the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, and she had her research published in academic journals.

After Laszlo left to pursue a career opportunity at Google, Ruiz-Blondet found a new advisor in Vladimir Miskovic, assistant professor of psychology. Her work also shifted to perception, and how the brain constructs the world it sees and experiences.

The brain continually makes modifications to perception, adjusting models based on input and interaction with the physical world. These models can trip up when adequate input doesn’t exist, such as a lightless cave, or when interaction with reality isn’t possible, such as in dreams, she explained. The end result: We hallucinate.

Recently, she presented her project in all of 180 seconds, earning second place in the graduate school’s Three-Minute Thesis competition.

While her current research doesn’t directly explore the intersection between computers and the brain, it furthers knowledge of the brain itself and how it constructs reality.

“Mavi’s research is addressing issues that lie, really, at the core of our experience and how the ‘stuff’ of our lives is built,” explained her advisor, Miskovic. “Traditionally, some of these questions were left to philosophers, things like ‘How do we create a ‘movie in the head’ that allows us to perceive the rich worlds around us. It may seem like common sense, but the fundamental questions are deep and profound. Now neuroscience and psychology are able to bring a lot of data to bear on these problems. In the end, we’ll likely conclude that reality is much stranger than we may suppose.”

Long-term, Ruiz-Blondet is interested in the possibilities of using the brain to control technology, she explained.

“’If you can turn thoughts to electrical impulses, you can do computer commands — which is basically mind control,” she said.

After earning her PhD this May, Ruiz-Blondet plans to find work in her field. Possibilities range from healthcare to banks, app-based startups and more; in our increasingly digital world, understanding how the mind interacts with technology is an asset.

Binghamton University not only gave Ruiz-Blondet the opportunity to study with accomplished professors and conduct meaningful research, it changed her life in other ways, too. As an international student, she worked as a Spanish-language specialist in Languages Across the Curriculum; the program helps students practice languages they wish to master outside of a language department classroom.

Through that program, she met fellow students from around the world and with different majors; some became her best friends. They challenged each other in good ways, including giving Ruiz-Blondet needed feedback for her three-minute thesis.

“Thanks to them, I was exposed to things I wouldn’t have been,” she said. “Binghamton has given me the opportunity to meet people with such different perspectives and that has allowed me to change and broaden my own perspective.”