In the blink of an eye, the human visual system can process an object, determining whether it’s a cup or a sock within milliseconds, and with seemingly little effort. It’s well-established that an object’s shape is a critical visual cue to help the eyes and brain perform this trick. A new study, however, finds that while the outer shape of an object is important for rapid recognition, the object’s inner “skeleton” may play an even more important role.

Scientific Reports published the research by psychologists at Emory University, showing that a key visual tool for object recognition is the medial axis of an object, or its skeletal geometry.

“When we think of an object’s shape, we typically imagine the outer contours,” explains Vladislav Ayzenberg, first author of the paper and an Emory PhD candidate in psychology. “But there is also a deeper, more abstract property of shape that’s described by skeletal geometry. Our research suggests that this inner, invisible mechanism may be crucial to recognizing an object so quickly.”

“You can think of it like a child’s stick drawing of a person,” adds Stella Lourenco, senior author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Emory. “Using a stick figure to represent a person gives you the basic visual information you need to immediately perceive the figure’s meaning.”

The Lourenco lab researches human visual perception, cognition and development. Visual perception of an object begins when light hits our eyes and the object is projected as a two-dimensional image onto the photoreceptor cells of the retina.