Look Before You Leap! Using Eye Tracking to Understand the Evolution of Locomotor Decision-making (2015-2016)

What can lemur locomotion teach us about human decision-making?

Although we’re not always aware of it, our brains are constantly engaging attention and decision-making processes while we navigate the environment. The origin of the human brain began when our ancestors became specialized for life in the trees—an adaptation requiring enhanced decision-making and attention to physical and social cues. These processes take into account new information, past experiences and social cues to select a travel path, avoid obstacles and choose how to move, in order to arrive safely and efficiently at our intended destination. To thrive in this environment, our earliest ancestors underwent rapid expansion of the visual centers of the brain associated with movement, foraging and decision-making. This expansion, which continued throughout primate evolution, served as the foundation for the revolution in attention and decision-making processes that define modern human behavior. How these processes evolved in humans is virtually unknown.

To address this question, this project explored how lemurs—animals similar in many ways to the earliest primates—use their eyes to plan movements in the environment. Team members use wireless infrared gaze-tracking technology developed for animals here at Duke to explore decision-making in freely moving lemurs in a semicaptive arboreal environment, using techniques developed over the past 20 years by Daniel Schmitt and refined more recently by Michael Granatosky. Anne Yoder helped facilitate experiments and provided necessary infrastructure at the Duke Lemur Center. Automated visual analysis procedures were developed by Katherine Heller to interpret meaningful results from the experiments. The team tested visual decision-making during walking, climbing, foraging and predator avoidance, and built understanding of the evolution of enhanced vision, attention and decision-making in primates.


Summer 2015 – Spring 2016

Team Outcomes

Project team demo at DIBS Discovery Day, Brain Awareness Week at Duke (April 3, 2016)


Bass Connections in Brain & Society: Brain Week 2016

This Team in the News

From Lab to Museum, Students Share Their Brain Research

Gabriela Ocampo, Biology ’16

Rachel Corr, Neuroscience ’18

Team Leaders

  • Michael Platt, School of Medicine-Neurobiology
  • Daniel Schmitt, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Rachel Corr, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Mark Cullen, Evolutionary Anthropology (BS)
  • Gabriela Ocampo, Biology (BS)
  • Ji Youn Park, Computer Science (AB), Psychology (BS2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Michael Granatosky, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology
  • Katherine Heller, Arts & Sciences-Statistical Science