Your brain is playing tricks on you! But it's okay.
In the late 1990s, two psychology researchers—University of Illinois professor Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, a professor at Union College in New York—conducted what is now a famous experiment. They showed a video of two groups of young women and men—some dressed in white shirts, some in black—passing basketballs back and forth. Simons’ and Chabris’ subjects were asked to count the times that the white-clad players passed the ball, while ignoring the passes made by those in black clothes. The subjects dutifully complied, and focused as hard as they could upon watching the passes. In fact, they did such a good job of following the basketballs that many of them missed something else that the researchers inserted into the video—
a person in a gorilla suit who walked into the game, pounded his chest flamboyantly, and then sauntered out of view. Amazingly, the fake gorilla was on screen for nearly nine seconds, yet half of those who watched didn't notice it.
Simons' and Chabris' ruse was dramatic evidence of a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, in which your eyes and brain focus so hard on one thing that they
completely miss something else that you'd expect would be really obvious. Inattentional blindness might sound like some sort of terrible malady, but actually, it's a good thing that we have it. Otherwise, our poor brains might be so overloaded by visual stimuli that we'd just wander around all day in a hopeless daze. "If we tried to focus on all the information, we'd be paralyzed," explains Brian Scholl, a psychology professor and director of Yale University's Perception and Cognition Laboratory. "We have to focus on only a small part."
That's just one of the many tricks that our eyes and the visual processing system in our brains continually employ, just to enable us to get through the day. Without our even realizing it, they carefully screen out most of the continuous onslaught of visual information around us, focusing on only the tiny fraction of stuff that's most critical to what we’re doing at a given moment. And then they actually enhance that
information, using other things we already know to fill in gaps, so we can make sense of it and act upon it. As two researchers, Marvin M. Chun at Yale and Jeremy M. Wolfe at Harvard, have written, our visual ability to filter and focus is what enables us to notice stop signs, changes in traffic lights, and other cars when we're driving.
Behind this all is a surprising secret: While we think of ourselves as adept multi-taskers, in reality our brains generally have difficulty paying attention to more than one thing at a time. Western Washington University psychologist Ira E. Hyman demonstrated this in an experiment where only 25 percent of pedestrians using a mobile phone noticed a clown on a unicycle who passed by them, compared to 55 percent of other walkers.
That's why our eyes and brains prioritize for us. For starters, they're designed only to see what’s really important.
Our eyes take in only about a millionth of a percent of the electromagnetic spectrum of radiation that reality bombards us with. And we pay attention mostly to an even tinier sliver of that. The fovea, a tiny, pinhead-sized portion in the center of the retina, contains a disproportionately huge concentration of cones, the cells that are sensitive to strong light. That enables us to have really, really sharp vision and take in detail, as long as we’re looking right at a
small area—about 10 degrees in the center of our field of vision. Upwards of 50 percent of our visual cortex, the section of the brain that makes sense of what we see, is devoted to processing that little snapshot.
That means there's a limited amount of visual information that you can take in, in any given moment. It’s a series of snapshots. That's why your eyes continually scan around, in movements called saccades. You do that as many as 173,000 times each day, without realizing it. That brain takes all those little pictures and pieces them together, as if they were a jigsaw puzzle, and creates the seamlessly flowing reality that you believe you're seeing.
Even as our brains do that, they're also editing and focusing. According to Chun and Wolfe, while we're watching the little movie in our heads, we tend to focus upon the objects that we see, rather than their surroundings or location in space.
This is called object-based attention, and it helps enable spectators at a tennis match to follow where the ball goes, rather than get lost gazing at the background.
And when we're focusing on some important object, we notice what's happening to it—but not to its surroundings. That's another trick, called change blindness, which our brains play on us. That innate tendency to tune out non-essential information is what causes movie viewers not to notice all the mistakes that creep into movies—such is the scene when James Stewart jumps off the bridge during a snowstorm in the 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life," and the snowflakes momentarily stop falling.” Instead, our brain fills in the blank, and simply convinces us that the snow was falling the whole time.
Our brains also try to work with the 95 percent of our vision outside our central focus point, which is comparatively
low-resolution. Though we’re not very good at seeing details on the edges, our peripheral vision is good at spotting motion—an ability that probably helped our ancient ancestors avoid predators. Our brains can take perceived motion and try to interpret it, making guesses about the blurry object based upon what they previously have seen. On the other hand, as the "Focus Pocus" episode demonstrates, our brains also can be easily fooled by a man who dresses in a female
cheerleader outfit and feigns a feminine gait and movements.
Our eyes and brains are so adept at fooling us, in fact, that they do it even when we know they're going to do it. In 2010, for example, Simons and Chablis, the researchers mentioned at the beginning of this article, decided to replicate the old basketballs-and-gorilla-suit study. This time, many of the experimental subjects were familiar with the original experiment, and aware of that the researchers were trying to trick them. But while those forewarned people spotted the gorilla, they actually performed slightly worse than uninformed subjects on noticing other strange and unexpected events that the researchers inserted into the scene—for example, how the curtain behind the ballplayers and the gorilla suddenly changed colors, or when a woman carrying an open umbrella walked through the scene.
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Our brains are playing tricks on us, but we can trick our brains right back.As we learn in “Focus Pocus,” our eyes and our brains continually play tricks on us, filtering out most of what we see and forcing us to focus on just a tiny portion. They’ll even make up details to fill in what we miss, and convince us that we’re seeing a continuous reality. Those tricks enable us to pay attention without being overloaded, and to concentrate upon the task at hand. But if you want to further improve your ability to visually focus, sports vision experts have developed visual training methods that they use to help athletes perform better on the baseball diamond or tennis court.
1. Have your eyes checked. You may think of 20/20 vision as the optimum, according to the Sports Vision Section of the American Optometric Association, that’s actually the minimum threshold for somebody who wants to perform physically at a high level. That’s why you should get an eye exam to evaluate the sharpness and distance abilities of your vision, and see if corrective lenses would boost it.
“The clearer you can see, the better you can analyze a situation and react quickly,” the AOA advises.
2. Get better at seeing moving objects. For athletes, it’s not enough just to see a tennis ball or a baseball pitch coming at them. They have to discern details of the ball, so they can judge the speed and the trajectory of the ball as well. In popular legend, baseball great Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400, supposedly honed his skills by trying to read the label on a spinning phonograph record. But even if Williams didn’t actually do that, sports vision guru Graham B. Erickson says you can develop dynamic visual acuity, as it is called, by marking letters on a rubber ball, throwing it into a pitchback net, and then trying to identify the letters as it bounces back toward you.
3. Sharpen your visual acuity. Whether you’re a quarterback scrambling out of the pocket or just cruising around on a
Sunday drive, it pays to train yourself to focus better upon stationary objects while you’re moving. One easy way to do this is to set up an agility ladder—basically, a rope ladder laid out on the ground—and skip around in and out of it while trying to read letters and numbers on eye charts posted on a nearby wall. Start out posting the charts about 10 feet away, and gradually move them further back as your skills improve.
4. Improve your peripheral awareness. The structure of your retina and the internal wiring of your visual cortex both affect how much you can make out in the corners of your vision. But you can train yourself to make the most of what peripheral vision you have, and to utilize it more often. Sports Vision Magazine, a website which offers vision training tips, recommends this simple exercise. Park yourself in front of a television set, about 15 feet away. It doesn’t matter which program you watch, because you’re going to spend the next eight minutes staring ahead, but concentrating upon the edges of the room behind the screen, repeatedly scanning up and down and from side-to side. Note whatever objects, such as lamps or rugs, are on the periphery, and try to perceive the textures and colors. Then, for another seven minutes, stretch out your arms to the side, bringing them forward enough that you can see your hands at the edge of your peripheral vision and try to pay attention to whatever is in front of both sets of fingertips, simultaneously.