Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sorry for the delay

I figure this picture makes it even?..

Before starting this blog I must do a few things; it has been a while after all. Firstly, I apologise sincerely for any of you that were actually waiting for this blog. I've been distracted and lazy, but most of all demotivated. I also didn't want to just release something trashy to fill the gap.

Secondly I must say that reading this blog will probably be quite time consuming, it is a little under t3400 words and it has many videos interwoven into it. I would consider approaching it in segments, reading the Inattentional Blindness bit and then coming back. It certainly makes the blog more effective though if you read the sections without distraction.

Thirdly, watch each video when I display it, without reading any further or the visual effect of some of the videos will be ruined, it's for your own benefit. On that note, here is the first video for you to watch. This blog is largely to do with attention in relation to transparency. You will see the players are semi-ghost like, so try this before I say anything; just count the passes.

Inattentional Blindness

When you're looking at your lovers face, or seeing your house for the last time before you move away, it is comforting to know that you're taking in the moment, every little detail. In dire situations, where your life may very well depend on you doing this before you act, it is nice to know that every bit of the puzzle is in place before you look down upon it. This however, as lovely and as commonplace as the concept is, is not the truth.

We are not taking in everything there is. Every day, when we choose to cross the road and when we ride our bicycles and drive our cars we are working with a puzzle with many invisible pieces. Sometimes they are small, seemingly irrelevant pieces, other times they might be vital. More confusing however is that when you learn of these once invisible pieces they often become the most obvious pieces in the box and it is hard to understand how you or anyone else in the world could not have seen them. The problem it seems, is that our consciousness has become very good at working around these gaps in information (it may even be important to our development that we do not know about them), so good in fact that it's hard now to notice any gaps at all. The main two phenomena can be reasonably split into not seeing things that are there, and not noticing changes in what we are seeing.

Inattentional blindness is the bizarre but frequent phenomenon of not being able to see fully visible but unexpected objects. These objects will usually become obvious when expected. It is a phenomenon that is constantly occurring and is restricting our very perception of the world. It is sometimes difficult, and perhaps counter intuitive, to accept it. People like to think (as would I) that when they look out upon the many scenes of life that they can trust what they see, that they are seeing it all. As I mentioned above, the trust in the senses would probably have been important for evolution and the development of a sane mind through childhood. Re-analysing if everything is real or not is time consuming and often impossible, and probably makes for an apathetic hunter/gatherer and is evidently not what became of us through evolution. But, whether evolutionary, developmental, or something entirely different there are many problems arising nowadays from inattentional blindness, and other perception phenomenon.

Although it may seem trivial, the phenomenon can interfere with many important areas of life. Witness reports of crimes and referee decisions are some more obvious examples of the many things that can be inhibited by inattentional blindness, but there are other less obvious activities as well. In an experiment talked about in the book Animals in Translation NASA conducted an experiment using a flight simulator where commercial pilots were tested to see if they would notice distractions on a runway during landings. Trained pilots failed to notice distractions ¼ of the time compared to the controls who would usually see the distraction. The explanation on the face of it seemed to be that, the pilots simply did not expect to see these distractions so did not look for them. It runs deeper than this though. Not only did the pilots within rational thought not expect to see the distractions, because of the way our brains have developed the brain had already decided for the pilots that it was not important, relevant information to be seeing in the first place. The distractions were filtered out well before they could have consciously decided their relevance 75% of the time. However, for someone who did not fly a plane, and whose brain had no conscious or contextual screen for information, these distractions were obvious. This is inattentional blindness, the obvious becoming the invisible.

Humans, regardless of our large developed brains, have a limited capacity for attention. Thus the brain is forced to 'decide' which bits of information to process at any given time. What the brain deems relevant, what the brain deems important. That is our consciousness and that is what, from your perspective, you see, smell, hear, feel and taste. The sad thing is however, the world in which we live our life is far greater then the world which we consciously explore. I hate to think how small the fraction of information that makes it through to us is, and it is likely not "regardless of our developed brains" but because of our developed brains that this is the case.

There are a few things that always do break through to consciousness. I mentioned that people almost always notice their names in the middle of a page of text no matter how hard they’re concentrating on something else; they will also notice a cartoon smiley face. But if you change the face just a tiny bit—turn the smile upside down so it’s a frown, for instance—people don’t see it. This is more evidence for the fact that your brain thoroughly processes sensory data before allowing it to become conscious. With the smiley face your brain has to have processed it to the level of knowing it’s a face and even that it’s a smiling face before it lets the face into conscious perception. Otherwise you’d see the frowny face as often as you saw the smiley face. It’s the same principle with your name. If your name is “Jack,” the word “Jack” will pop out at you in the middle of a page. But the letters “Jick” won’t. That means your brain processes the word “Jack” all the way up to the level of knowing that it’s your name before your brain admits “Jack” into consciousness." - Dana Foundation - Animals in translation

The most popularised inattentional blindness study was done by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. In the study subjects would watch a short video of 2 teams passing a basketball around. The subjects were told to either count the number of passes by one team or to note the number of bounce passes in comparison to aerial passes. The videos were further divided into different versions; one where a woman with an umbrella walks through and in another she walks through wearing a full gorilla suit. 50% of subjects failed to report seeing the gorilla when asked after watching the video. I put a video from from the same experiment at the beginning of the blog and although some of you would have seen something similar to this before, or had it ruined for you by others (especially if you read the comments of the video etc) I wonder how many of you that watched saw the woman with the umbrella? I like to show people in person, because at the very end is where the people who saw it nod and the people who didn't race back to watch it over.

Here is a modern take on the same experiment.

I happen to like this video better, but many people have seen it and I didn't want it to be no fun for them. Ask your friends and parents to watch it in an unsuspecting way. Eg. "Me and my friend have been arguing about how many passes they make, what do you think?" I made sure to embed all the videos as well because some idiots actually put "Can you see the bear?" as the name of some of the videos or in the descriptions, and you get the usual youtube comments of "THERE'S A BEAR".

Daniel Simons who conducted the study gave his interpretations as thus; people mistake how distracted they will be due to important events, this is especially the case when the subject is forced to concentrate attention on one specific goal. I find these videos helped just to show how little we are actually consciously processing. So how do we know that we aren't just missing these things when we are looking, and that we actually are seeing them and filtering them out of our consciousness? Well one way to know would be if it made any impact on our subconscious, an impact that could be measured at that. Well it seems that it does indeed do that, at least some of the time.

They’d do things like ask their subjects to tell them which arm of a cross that flashed onto a computer screen for about 200 milliseconds was longer. Then, on some of the trials, there’d be a word like “grace” or “flake” printed on the screen, too. Most people didn’t notice the word. They were paying attention to the cross, so they didn’t see it. But Dr. Rock and Dr. Mack showed that many of them had seen the words unconsciously. Later on, when they gave subjects just the first three letters of the word—gra or fla—and asked them to finish them with any word that came to mind, 36 percent answered “grace” or “flake.” Only 4 percent of the control subjects— these were people who hadn’t been subliminally exposed to any words at all—came up with “grace” or “flake.” That’s a huge difference and can only mean that the subjects who were subliminally exposed to “grace” and “flake” really did see “grace“ and “flake.” They just didn’t know it.” - Dana Foundation - Animals in translation

Change Blindness

Change blindness is a phenomenon that is also constantly occurring throughout our lifetimes and it can interfere with countless activities that require focus and observation (and if you gain nothing else from this, you can at least use this as a reason for not noticing your friends new hair cut). It is the phenomenon that occurs when a person fails to detect a large change or changes in any scene that they are viewing. The scene could be any level of complexity; from a city landscape or a person in a booth all the way down to a computer graphic of simple shapes appearing and moving around a screen. Usually the change will happen with some kind of visual obstruction such as the obscuring of a scene for a short moment. For example, watch the following videos in order.

With visual obstructions, the image will flicker. The image will change every now and again. Try count the number of changes.

The very same, but without visual obstructions. Notice how ridiculously obvious they without obstruction.

Some visual disruptions can be like the flickering in those videos, or other disruptions put there on purpose in experiments such as blacking out an image momentarily or etc. These are good experiments and the flickering video is interesting, trivial perhaps, but it is hardly applicable to real life changes right? Well that is at least what I was thinking, however let's delve a bit further into change blindness, tumble down the rabbit hole a little longer. The most common forms of significant visual disruptions I can think of are biological in nature. These include rapid eye movements known as saccades, and the obvious disruption; - blinking. I did some quick googling and although it obviously varies from person to person, I found some average figures on blinking. There were only two figures I could see quickly that were sourced however;

  • “Once every five seconds. That's equal to 17,000 times each day or 6.25 million times a year.”- enotes
  • “Women and men do not differ in their rates of spontaneous blinking. Generally, between each blink in intervals of 2–10 seconds; actual rates vary by individual averaging around 10 blinks per minute in a laboratory setting. However, when the eyes are focused on an object for an extended period of time, such as when reading, the rate of blinking decreases to about 3-4 times per minute." -Wikipedia; source - M.J. Doughty, 2002, Optom Vis Sci

So taking only blinking into account there is already ample opportunity for you to experiencing change blindness in your day to day activities. So if this isn't just a laboratory phenomena, what other examples can be found of this. Now for the more exciting side of change blindness. Take this following video, an ordinary situation; merely handing in a form. The actual experiment appears at 1:17, but I would watch the beginning if you have time. They don't allow their video to be embedded for some annoying reason, so just click the link.


I must say I find that to be an excellent video, and a much better explanation than I can give, partialy because of my restricted medium and this is just very well done. For those who couldn't watch the video (definitely try to at some point in the future) it was an experiment done where the subjects were asked to sign a form and then hand it in to a man at a counter. The man would duck down as if putting the paper away below the counter but would instead crawl out of view while a second man promptly appeared.

Now these 2 men barely look alike; their hair, faces and shirt colours vary dramatically and yet 75% of people failed to report noticing that there was actualy a second man. And it isn't just that they didn't notice, it also failed to register when they were told. The penny never dropped so to speak, they simply sat there astounded at their seeming lack of observation. As the video says at the end, magicians use this all the time. Heres another example, popular magician Derren Brown showcases the phenomena to unsuspecting people on the street.


It's very hard not to think “I would have noticed that”, and maybe that is the case for some of us. But, statistically, it is the case for few of us. Although you may have seen the woman in the first video - but then again you were probably suspecting some alternative motive for the video rather than me simply testing your basic numeracy skills - I will have 2 polls on the left hand side of the blog. One will be asking if you saw the woman in the very first video, the second will be asking about how accurate you were in counting the changes in the flicker video. Please answer them if you can, if you had either of them ruined for you then don't worry about it, I'm just curious.

So, what has this all got to do with a skeptic blog anyway?

Essentially, it gets super boring hearing "but I saw it happen". More generally, "but it worked for (instert friend or family member). I'm going to go through the major reasons you can't trust yourself, probably interjected with less heavy blogs, and the next one will most likely be on memory. I realise that there are differing standards of what defines acceptable evidence in the community, and I'm going to try and raise that. After the memory blog, anyone who still says "But I saw it" or anything other than "but I read this well received, blinded study that was posted in a respected peer-reviewed journal" can at least just be refferred to these blogs instead of having it explained to them personally each time. Also, double-blinded studies are ideal but can't always be done due to certain complications.

Anyway, thanks for reading this. I hope it was interesting, and I hope you're all little bit more skeptical about what you think you're seeing. Give me some positive/negative feedback if you have time. If there's anything I've missed let me know and I'll make sure to edit it in,