Having an open-minded personality manifests at a basic level of visual perception

Rene Descartes' diagram of the human brain and eye, 1692.By Christian Jarrett

Openness to Experience is one of the so-called Big Five personality traits and, among other things, it’s associated with being more creative, curious and appreciative of the arts. Like all the traits, where you score has important implications – for instance, there’s recent evidence that being more Open is associated with having more “cognitive reserve”, which gives you protection from the harmful effects of dementia.

Openness correlates with, but is distinct from, intelligence, and psychologists are trying to find out more about what the basis of Openness is at a cognitive and neural level. A new paper in Journal of Research in Personality shows that the trait runs deep, even affecting a very basic aspect of visual perception. It seems Open people literally see the world differently.

Anna Antinori and her colleagues asked 134 undergrad students to perform a binocular rivalry task, which involves two different images being presented separately to each eye. The brain usually deals with this clash by alternately suppressing the images, which leads to the subjective experience of seeing one image then the other, back and forth. Occasionally, the perception of the two images can meld together and the researchers were interested in whether this experience correlates with the personality trait of Openness.

That’s exactly what they found. They presented their participants with a red striped pattern to one eye and a green pattern to the other simultaneously for two minutes, and asked participants to press keyboard keys to indicate what they could see from one moment to the next, whether the red pattern, the green, or a mixture of the two. Those participants who scored higher on a questionnaire measure of Openness to Experience (they agreed with items like “I need a creative outlet”) experienced a “mixed percept” a greater amount of time than lower scorers.

The researchers don’t think this is a simple response bias – that is, having a lower threshold for saying when the image seemed mixed – because the personality link disappeared when they used larger stimuli that are known to increase the experience of a mixed percept (if there is a personality-related response bias, you’d expect it to occur again with the bigger stimuli). In a final experiment, the researchers showed that inducing positive mood, via an imagination task and music, increased the mixed percept experience especially for higher scorers in Openness.

“We provided the first evidence that individuals reporting greater openness to experience may also have characteristically different low-level visual perceptual experiences,” the researchers said.

They think the same neural processes may underlie this visual effect and previous behavioural findings related to Openness, such as that it correlates with superior divergent thinking skills. The precise nature of these neural processes awaits further investigation, but for now a clue may come from the fact that the psychedelic compound psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) also increases the experience of mixed percepts during binocular rivalry.

Seeing it both ways: Openness to experience and binocular rivalry suppression

Image: Rene Descartes’ diagram of the human brain and eye, 1692. From Opera Philosophica by Rene Descartes. (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1692). Originally published in his Tractatus de homine. (Paris, 1664). (Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images).

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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