Do We Only See What We Want To See?

Researchers at Brigham and Women's are studying inattentional blindness.

Do we only see what we are looking for? Or do we only see what we want to see? Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital studied whether or not inattentional blindness is real, and it turns out, it is.

Paying attention to your work can actually make you blind to other things, according to research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). The study shows that people often miss things when engaged in a difficult task. It can be more than just a typo (although it does explain some typos that slip by). The study placed large objects right in front of people to see what they would miss. The phenomenon is known as inattentional blindness and the study was published this week in Psychological Science. 

“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,” explains Trafton Drew, PhD, post-doctoral researcher at BWH and lead author on this study in a press release.“We found that even experts are vulnerable to this phenomenon.”

The researchers asked 24 radiologists to perform a familiar lung nodule detection task, something they do often as part of their normal job routines. They examined five scans, and each one contained an average of 10 nodules. A gorilla, 48 times larger than the average nodule, was inserted in the last scan. (Remember: 48 times larger!) The researchers found that 83 percent of radiologists did not report seeing the gorilla.

The researchers tracked the eye-movements of the radiologists and found that that the majority of those who missed the gorilla actually 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,” says Jeremy Wolfe, senior psychologist and director of the Visual Attention Laboratory at BWH in the release. “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.”

Brigham and Women’s concludes that:

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.

Do you see the gorilla?

Do you see the gorilla? Photo provided.

Do you see the gorilla? Photo provided.