If You're Not Looking for It, You Probably Won't See It

Many of the great fictional detectives had the ability to see what others had missed.  Lord Peter Whimsey and Sherlock Holmes lead the list of detectives, and one of the first mystery stories, The Purloined Letter by Poe, was built around the inability of most humans to see things literally in front of their faces.

A new study published in the current issue of Psychological Science finds that even expert searchers, operating in their domain of expertise, are vulnerable to "inattentional blindness", i.e., the inability to see something right in front of our eyes, especially when focused on a task.

You'd think that if a gorilla floated across your computer screen while you were editing, you'd notice it, right?  Chances are very good that you would not.  Here's the gist of the press release:

"When engaged in a demanding task, attention can act like a set of blinders, making it possible for stimuli to pass, undetected, right in front of our eyes," explained Trafton Drew, PhD, post-doctoral researcher at BWH and lead author on this study. "We found that even experts are vulnerable to this phenomenon."

The researchers asked 24 radiologists to perform a familiar lung nodule detection task. They examined five scans; each scan contained an average of 10 nodules. A gorilla, 48 times larger than the average nodule, was inserted in the last scan. The researchers found that 83 percent of radiologists did not report seeing the gorilla. With the help of Melissa Le-Hoa Vo, post-doctoral researcher at BWH, the researchers tracked the eye-movements of the radiologists and found that that the majority of those who missed the gorilla looked directly at it.

"The radiologists missed the gorillas not because they could not see them, but because the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas," explained Jeremy Wolfe, senior psychologist and director of the Visual Attention Laboratory at BWH. "This study helps illustrate that what we become focused on becomes the center of our world, and it shapes what we can and cannot see."

The researchers note that it would be a mistake to regard these results as an indictment of radiologists and stress that even this high level of expertise does not immunize against inherent attentional limitations of what we perceive. The results suggest that even expert searchers typically only see what they are looking for, and are often unaware of the unexpected. The researchers hope that the results will lead more expert searchers to recognize the important role of attention in determining what the searcher will find and what they may miss.
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A side thought ~ wouldn't the name G. Trafton Drew be great for a fictional detective? 

Story Source:  T. Drew, M. L.- H. Vo, J. M. Wolfe. The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again: Sustained Inattentional Blindness in Expert Observers. Psychological Science, 2013.


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