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UC Santa Barbara Study Shows Our Brains Wired To See The Big Picture, But We May Miss The Obvious

(UCSB Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences)
Find the toothbrush in this image.

It can be something larger than life right in front of us but we don’t see it at first.

A new UC Santa Barbara study concludes we sometimes miss seeing things in plain sight because their size doesn’t conform with what we expect to see. The research is part of an effort to help us understand how we as humans conduct visual searches.

The researchers say they’ve found that when we glance at a scene, and something that’s way out of normal scale, or size, we may actually miss it. Our brain ignores it, because it doesn’t fit the expected context.

Dr. Miguel Eckstein is a researcher in UCSB Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He says if we see something that’s not at the expected scale, we’ll miss it, even if it’s a large object. The researcher explains this brain process, while unexpected, is something which was actually a good thing as humans evolved. It allows us to focus on the big picture of what we see.

The study used computer generated images featuring 14 objects, and asked some 60 participants to look specifically for the objects. The UCSB professor says our brains will in effect fill in the blanks about a scene we’ll see. Eckstein says as people progressed through the study, they caught on and were eventually no longer fooled.

The results of the study are being featured in the current edition of the scientific journal “Current Biology.”

Eckstein says he’s hoping next to a similar version of the study with people on the autism spectrum. He says there are theories that they might do better at picking up on the details most people miss, because their focus may be more on the details, and less on the big picture of a scene.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. 
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