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He ponders what we see when we see

Boston University 's Ennio Mingolla is studying how the brain processes images, helped in his research by graduate student Arash Fazl, wearing a computer-aided eye tracker. Boston University 's Ennio Mingolla is studying how the brain processes images, helped in his research by graduate student Arash Fazl, wearing a computer-aided eye tracker. (MICHELE McDONALD/GLOBE STAFF)

Half of the human brain is devoted to the matter of vision. But "what do we know about what we see?" asks Ennio Mingolla, professor of cognitive and neural systems and psychology at Boston University. "What makes black look black?"

Mingolla tries to answer that question by developing neural models, mathematical algorithms that are used to answer questions of how the brain processes images. This year his research won him an award from the International Neural Society.

"Your brain wants to find persistent structures in the world," says Mingolla, 53. "Objects you can interact with." He uses the example of shadows versus edges. "We see that a shadow's not something you can trip over. That's because we're built to recognize pigment. On the other hand, much of our vision depends on seeing edges, regions of high transition. But if that's all we saw, we'd live in a world of line drawings." Some neurons, he says, are gifted at finding edges, while others are good at filling in gaps. Mingolla has spent his career determining how, exactly, this all ties together.

Mingolla was born in southern Italy, and his family emigrated to Worcester when he was 3 years old. While his father worked in construction, Mingolla went to a public school "on the wrong side of the tracks." To intimidate people, he used to say that he wanted to be an astrophysicist. Instead, he ended up at Harvard, studying philosophy. Afterward, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, he decided that people needed to communicate better.

"I was concerned that language was keeping people apart," says Mingolla. "Whorf" -- a 20th-century linguist -- "said you can only think what you can put into language, so I became interested in the idea of a universal visual language made of signs." A sort of silent Esperanto, inspired by the symbols found in, say, public restrooms. It didn't work out, but the idea inspired him to learn about vision.

"The big question of Western thought is, are we spiritual beings, or physical, or both?" he says. "By spirit I mean 'mind.' " The young Mingolla thought that the subject of vision was a small gloss on the great question of the mind-body dichotomy. "It seemed approachable."

The question of how the mind "sees" might not qualify as approachable to most people. During graduate school at the University of Connecticut he studied the structure of light and the nuts and bolts of how human beings see. Then he came to BU and immersed himself in the brain. Still, Mingolla doesn't feel that his work is esoteric. "Compared to the other physical sciences, vision has an immediacy. It relates to you."

Many of his experiments are "psychophysical," testing respondents' descriptions of shapes and shading (you can see some of these at ). One of the practical applications of this work is in developing computer programs that can sift through massive amounts of visual data -- teaching computers how to look intelligently at trillions of bytes of information from satellite images, for example. "A lot of government security agencies are interested in our work."

Mingolla believes that his work in understanding vision has barely begun. "To me, the next millennia will be when we make some progress on understanding the inner world," he says. But he admits that you can't give a scientific description of everything that occurs within the human mind.

"Some things I would rather leave to the poets."

Fact sheet

Hometown: Wellesley.

Family: Wife, Susan Stearns. Sons David, 17, Jacob, 12.

Hobbies: As is appropriate for a philosopher (and an Italian), Mingolla makes wine. Zinfandel, Syrah, Gewurtramminer, Pinot Grigio. He's a member of the Eastern Massachusetts Wine-Makers Cooperative. "It's a social thing."

Other passion: Teaching. "To me, September is springtime. You meet a new crop of graduate students and see a world of potential."