Space & Innovation

How Do Things Hide In Plain Sight?

Did you see that? ...No? With so much going on around us, our brain sometimes misses the details - here's why.

This might seem a little Zen, but hang in there: According to new scientific evidence, you don't actually see what you see. You only see what you think you see.

As Sapna Parikh explains in today's DNews dispatch, the eyes don't actually determine the things that we visually apprehend. The brain makes the final call, which explains that odd experience where you miss something in plain sight. In a very real way, you never saw the thing you missed in the first place. It's not your fault; it's your brain's fault.

Evidence for this phenomenon is provided in a high-profile new study, which indicates that the brain's frontal cortex actually determines what you see. The frontal cortex is entirely capable of making an end-run around the visual cortex, which directly interprets what you apprehend with your eyes. If the frontal cortex deems something irrelevant -- a gorilla, say -- you simply don't see it. More on the gorilla in a minute.

This isn't just conjecture, either. Scientists now have hard data on the matter. In the new study, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California used functional MRI machines to track specific areas brain activity. By performing visual tests, inhibiting certain areas of the brain, and monitoring results, they came to some interesting conclusions.

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The upshot: The frontal cortex decides what to pay attention to, pivoting off several factors, including expectation. Basically, you're more likely to see something you're expecting to see, and less likely to register things you're not looking for.

And that's where the gorilla comes in. In a famous 1999 study, Harvard psychologists performed a test in which participants were told to watch a video carefully. Thanks to some notional misdirection, half of the viewers literally did not see a man in a gorilla suit pass through the middle of the scene. The landmark study introduced the concept of "inattentional blindness." You can take the test yourself right here.

One final note: The Harvard test was called "Gorillas in Our Midst," which really must be applauded.

-- Glenn McDonald

Read More:

American Psychology Association: Sights Unseen

Scientific American: Your Hidden Censor: What Your Mind Will Not Let You See

NPR: Why Even Radiologists Can Miss A Gorilla Hiding In Plain Sight

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