Ian M. Thornton

Professor of Cognitive Science


Department of Cognitive Science
Faculty of Media & Knowledge Science
University of Malta
Msida, MSD 2080

Email: ian.thornton at um.edu.mt
Web:  www.ianthornton.com

Home Research Areas Background Publications

I'm interested in understanding how the brain represents information that changes over time. Much work on vision in Cognitive Science continues to concern itself with stable states. Often this is simply because static experimental stimuli are more available and/or conceptually tractable. In my research I try to explore the role that time plays in mental representation. I do this by adapting standard experimental methods/techniques for use with dynamic stimuli.

Research Areas

Foraging, Search & Change

  • is human foraging constrained by attention?
  • what other factors modulate foraging/search?
  • Do "unseen"changes still affect behaviour?
  • does foraging/search have a temporal context?
  • Face Perception

  • is facial motion a cue to identity?
  • what sort of facial motion is important?
  • what tasks should be used with dynamic faces?
  • how do facial and body ID interact?
  • Biological Motion

  • why is biological motion processing important?
  • what mechanisms underlie such processing?
  • what role does attention play?
  • what techniques/tasks can be used?
  • Mobile Devices

  • developing experimental apps
  • exploring action & attention
  • indirectly measuring performance
  • using apps with special populations
  • Localisation

  • why do we sometimes mislocalize objects?
  • are different types of error related?
  • what do they tell us about vision?
  • do they also affect action?
  • Background

    I was born and brought up in North East London, went to Lancaster for my undergrad and then on to Cambridge for an MPhil. I left the UK in late Eighties, travelling first to Japan, where I taught English, and then on to Australia. For four years I was a research assistant at Sydney University while completely failing to learn to surf. I then moved to the West Coast of the US, starting my PhD with Jennifer Freyd, at the University of Oregon, Eugene. I took my second year out to visit the lab of Maggie Shiffrar at Rutgers University, Newark, NJ. Returning to Eugene for two more years, I graduated in 1997. I did a post-doc in Boston, working at the now-vanished Cambridge Basic Research labs, split between MIT & Harvard. I had the good fortune to work with a number of inspiring colleagues, including Ron Rensink, Patrick Cavanagh, Simon Rushton & Rob Gray. In 2000, I moved back to Europe, joining Heinrich Bülthoff's group at the Max Planck Insitute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany. In 2005 I became Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Swansea University. Since 2013 I have been Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Malta. I also live in Belgrade, Serbia for part of the year.


    1. Thornton, I. M., Tagu, J., Zdravković, S., & Kristjánsson, Á. (2021). The Predation Game: Does dividing attention affect patterns of human foraging?. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 6(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-021-00299-w

    2. Thornton, I. M., Vuong, Q. C., & Pilz, K. S. (2021). A search advantage for horizontal targets in dynamic displays. i-Perception, 12(2) https://doi.org/10.1177/20416695211004616

    3. Richards, E., Tales, A., Bayer, A., Norris, J. E., Hanley, C., & Thornton, I. M. (2021). Reaction Time Decomposition as a Tool to Study Subcortical Ischemic Vascular Cognitive Impairment. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease Reports, 5(1), 625-636. https://doi.org/10.3233/ADR-210029

    4. Richards, E., Thornton, I. M., Bayer, A. & Tales, A. (2021). Inhibitory control deficits in vascular cognitive impairment revealed using the MILO task. Neuropsychologia, 155, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2021.107794 [PDF]

    5. Thornton, I. M., & Horowitz, T. S. (2020). Searching through alternating sequences: Working memory and inhibitory tagging mechanisms revealed using the MILO task. i-Perception, 11(5). https://doi.org/10.1177/2041669520958018

    6. Nguyen, T. T. N., Vuong, Q. C., Mather, G., & Thornton, I. M. (2020). Ensemble Coding of Crowd Speed Using Biological Motion. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-020-02163-3

    7. Thornton, I. M., Nguyen, T. T. N., & Kristjansson, A. (2020). Foraging Tempo: Human run patterns in multiple target search are constrained by the rate of successive responses. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1177/1747021820961640 [PDF]

    8. Thornton, I. M., & Zdravković, S. (2020) Searching for Illusory Motion. Attention Perception & Psychophysics, 82: 44-62. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-019-01750-3 [PDF]

    9. Kristjánsson, T., Thornton, I. M., Chetverikov, A., & Kristjánsson, Á. (2020). Dynamics of visual attention revealed in foraging tasks. Cognition, 194, 104032. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2019.104032 [PDF]

    10. Mayer, K. M., Thornton, I. M., & Vuong, Q. C. (2019). Comparable search efficiency for human and animal targets in the context of natural scenes. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-019-01901-6 [PDF]

    11. Thornton, I. M., & Horowitz, T. S. (2019). MILO Mobile: An iPad app to measure search performance in multi-target sequences. PsyArXiv preprint, https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/6yd83 [PDF]

    12. Thornton, I. M., de’Sperati, C., & Kristjánsson, Á. (2019). The influence of selection modality, display dynamics and error feedback on patterns of human foraging. Visual Cognition, 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/13506285.2019.1658001 [PDF]

    13. de’Sperati, C., & Thornton, I. M. (2019). Motion prediction at low contrast. Vision Research, 154, 85–96. DOI: 10.1016/j.visres.2018.11.004 [PDF]

    14. Prpic, V., Kniestedt, I., Camilleri, E., Maureira, M. G., Kristjánsson, Á., & Thornton, I. M. (2019). A serious game to explore human foraging in a 3D environment. PLoS ONE 14(7):https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0219827 [PDF]

    15. Thornton, I. M., Srismith, D., Oxner, M., & Hayward, W. G. (2018). Other-race faces are given more weight than own-race faces when assessing the composition of crowds. Vision Research. DOI: 10.1016/j.visres.2018.02.008 [PDF]

    16. Bülthoff, I., Mohler, B. J. & Thornton, I. M. (2018). Face recognition of full-bodied avatars by active observers in a virtual environment. Vision Research. DOI: doi.org/10.1016/j.visres.2017.12.001 [PDF]

    17. Thornton I. M. (2018). Stepping into the genetics of biological motion processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 115 (8) 1687-1689; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1722625115 [PDF]

    18. Kristjánsson, T., Thornton, I. M. & Kristjánsson, Á (2018). Time limits during visual foraging reveal flexible working memory templates. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 44(6), 827-835. [PDF]

    19. Ballarini, N. & Thornton, I. M. (2017). Matching Biological Motion across Viewpoints. Xjenza Online, 5:21-29. doi:10.7423/XJENZA.2017.1.03 [PDF]

    20. Hartkamp, M., & Thornton, I. M. (2017). Meditation, cognitive flexibility and well-being. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 1-15. [PDF]

    21. Jóhannesson, Ó. I., Thornton, I. M & Kristjánsson, Á. (2017). Are foraging patterns in humans related to working memory and inhibitory control? Japanese Psychological Research doi:10.1111/jpr.12152 [PDF]

    22. Mayer, K. M., Vuong, Q.C. & Thornton, I.M. (2016). Humans are Detected More Efficiently than Machines in the Context of Natural Scenes. Japanese Psychological Research, doi:10.1111/jpr.12145 [PDF]

    23. Pilz, K. S., & Thornton, I. M. (2016). Idiosyncratic body motion influences person recognition. Visual Cognition, doi: 13506285.2016.1232327 [PDF]

    24. Jenkins, A., Lindsay, S., Eslambolchilar, P., Thornton, I. M., & Tales, A. (2016). Administering Cognitive Tests Through Touch Screen Tablet Devices: Potential Issues. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 54(3):1169-1182. [PDF]

    25. Jóhannesson, Ó. I., Thornton, I. M., Smith, I. J., Chetverikov, A., & Kristjánsson, Á. (2016). Visual Foraging With Fingers and Eye Gaze. i-Perception, 7(2), 2041669516637279. [PDF]

    26. Jenkins, A., Eslambolchilar, P., Lindsay, S., Hare, M., Thornton, I. M., & Tales, A. (2016). Attitudes towards Attention and Aging: What Differences between Younger and Older Adults Tell Us about Mobile Technology Design. International Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction (IJMHCI), 8(2), 47-68. [PDF]

    27. Mayer, K. M., Vuong, Q.C. & Thornton, I.M. (2015). Do People “Pop Out”? PLoS ONE 10(10): e0139618. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139618. [PDF]

    28. Thornton, I. M., & Horowitz, T. S. (2015). Does action disrupt Multiple Object Tracking (MOT)? Psihologija, 48(3), 289-301. [PDF]

    29. Caniard, F., Bülthoff, H.H., & Thornton I.M. (2015). Action can amplify motion-induced illusory displacement. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8:1058, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.01058 [PDF]

    30. Thornton, I. M. (2014). Representational Momentum and the Human Face: an empirical note. Xjenza, 2(2), 9, 101-110. [PDF]

    31. Kristjánsson, Á., Jóhannesson, Ó.I., & Thornton, I. M. (2014). Common Attentional Constraints in Visual Foraging. PLoS ONE 9(6): e100752. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100752. [PDF]

    32. Thornton, I. M., Wootton, Z., & Pedmanson, P. (2014). Matching biological motion at extreme distances. Journal of Vision, 14(3):13, 1–17, http://www.journalofvision.org/content/14/3/13, doi:10.1167/14.3.13. [PDF]

    33. Thornton, I. M., Bülthoff, H. H., Horowitz, T. S., Rynning, A. & Lee, S-W. (2014). Interactive Multiple Object Tracking (iMOT). PLoS ONE 9(2): e86974. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086974 [PDF]

    34. Steenfeldt-Kristensen, C., & Thornton, I. M. (2013). Haptic choice blindness. i-Perception, 4(3), 207-210. [PDF]

    35. Caniard, F., Bülthoff, H. H., Mamassian, P., Lee, S.W. & Thornton, I. M. (2011). Active control does not eliminate motion-induced illusory displacement. Proceedings of the ACM SIGGRAPH Symposium on Applied Perception in Graphics and Visualization, 101-108. [PDF]

    36. Thornton, I. M., Mullins, E., & Banahan K. (2011). Motion can amplify the face-inversion effect. Psihologija, 44(1), 5-22. [PDF]

    37. Pilz, K., Vuong, Q. C., Bülthoff, H. H., & Thornton, I. M. (2011). Walk this way: Approaching bodies can influence the processing of faces. Cognition 118, 17–3. [PDF]

    38. Borgo, R., Proctor, K., Chen, M., Jannicke, H., Murray, T., Thornton, I. M. (2010) Evaluating the impact of task demands and block resolution on the effectiveness of pixel-based visualization. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 16, 963-972. [PDF]

    39. Chandrasekaran C., Turner L., Bülthoff H. H., Thornton I. M., (2010). Attentional networks and biological motion, Psihologija, 43(1), 5-20. [PDF]

    40. Giese, M. A., Thornton, I. M., & Edelman, S. (2008). Metrics of the perception of body movement. Journal of Vision, 8(9):13, 1-18. [PDF]

    41. Horowitz, T. S., & Thornton I. M. (2008). Objects or Locations in Vision for Action? Evidence from the MILO task. Visual Cognition, 16(4), 486-513. [PDF]

    42. Chen, M., Botchen, R.P., Hashim, R.R., Weiskopf, D., Ertl, T., & Thornton, I.M. (2006). Visual signatures in video visualization, IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 12(5), 1093-1100. [PDF]

    43. Chuang, L., Vuong, Q. C., Thornton, I. M. & Bülthoff, H. H. (2006) Recognising novel deforming objects. Visual Cognition, 14(1), 85-88.

    44. Thornton, I. M. (2006). Out of Time: A possible link between mirror neurons, autism & electromagnetic radiation. Medical Hypotheses, 67, 378-382. [PDF]

    45. Thornton, I. M. & Knoblich, G. (2006). Action Perception: Seeing the world through a moving body. Current Biology, 16(1), R27-R29. [PDF]

    46. Pilz, K. S., Thornton, I. M. & Bülthoff, H. H. (2006). A search advantage for faces learned in motion. Experimental Brain Research, 171(4), 436-447. [PDF]

    47. Vuong, Q. C., Hof., A., Bülthoff, H. H., & Thornton, I. M. (2006). An advantage for detecting dynamic targets in natural scenes. Journal of Vision, 6 (1): 87-96 2006. [PDF]

    48. Brouwer, A., Thornton, I. M., & Franz, V. H. (2005). Forward displacement in grasping and visually judging pliers. Visual Cognition, 12(5), 800-816. [PDF]

    49. Thornton, I. M. & Vuong, Q. C. (2004). Incidental processing of biological motion. Current Biology, 14, 1084-1089. [PDF]

    50. Brouwer, A., Franz, V. H., & Thornton, I.M. (2004). Representational momentum in perception and grasping. Journal of Vision, 4(7), 575-584. [PDF]

    51. Thornton, I. M. & Hayes, A. E. (2004). Anticipating human action in complex scenes. Visual Cognition, 11, 341-370. [PDF]

    52. Thornton I. M. & Horowitz, T. S. (2004). The Multi-Item Localization (MILO) task. Perception & Psychophysics, 66, 38-50. [PDF]

    53. Thornton, I. M., Vuong, Q. C., & Bülthoff, H. H. (2003). A chimeric point-light walker, Perception, 32, 377-383. [PDF]

    54. Fernandez-Duque, D., Grossi, G., Thornton, I. M., & Neville, H. J. (2003). Representation of Change: Separate Electrophysiological Markers of Attention, Awareness, and Implicit Processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15(4), 1-17. [PDF]

    55. Knappmeyer, B., Thornton, I.M., & Bülthoff, H. H. (2003). Facial motion can bias the perception of facial identity. Vision Research, 43, 1921-1936. [PDF]

    56. Battelli, L., Cavanagh, P., & Thornton, I. M. (2003). Perception of biological motion in parietal patients. Neuropsychologica, 41 (13): 1808-1816. [PDF]

    57. Fernandez-Duque, D., & Thornton, I. M. (2003). Explicit mechanisms do not account for implicit localization and identification of change: A reply to Mitroff et al. (2002). Journal of Experimental Psychology: HPP, 29 (5): 846-858. [PDF]

    58. Thornton, I. M., & Hubbard, T. L. (2002). Representational Momentum: New Findings, New Directions. Visual Cognition, 9, 1-7. [PDF]

    59. Thornton I. M. (2002). The onset repulsion effect. Spatial Vision, 15(2), 219-243. [PDF]

    60. Thornton, I. M., & Kourtzi, Z. (2002). The perception of dynamic human faces. Perception, 31, 113-132. [PDF]

    61. Thornton, I. M., Rensink, R. A., & Shiffrar, M. (2002). Active versus passive processing of biological motion. Perception, 31, 837-853. [PDF]

    62. Cavanagh, P., Labianca, A., & Thornton, I. M. (2001). Attention-based visual routines: Sprites. Cognition, 80, 47-60. [PDF]

    63. Gray, R. & Thornton, I. M. (2001). Exploring the link between time-to-collision and representational momentum. Perception, 30, 1007-1022. [PDF]

    64. Thornton, I. M., & Fernandez-Duque, D. (2000). An implicit measure of undetected change. Spatial Vision, 14(1), 21-44. [PDF]

    65. Fernandez-Duque, D., & Thornton, I. M. (2000). Change detection without awareness: Do explicit reports underestimate the representation of change in the visual system? Visual Cognition,7, 323-344. [PDF]

    66. Thornton, I. M., Pinto J., & Shiffrar, M. (1998). The visual perception of human locomotion. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 15, 535-552. [PDF]

    67. Thornton, I. M. (1997). The perception of dynamic human faces (Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Oregon, Eugene. BF242.T46 1997). [PDF]