People who’ve had an out-of-body experience (OBE) report that their conscious awareness shifted outside their physical body – often upwards, so they felt like they were floating above their own head. It’s thought that OBEs occur when the brain fails to properly integrate data from the different senses, including vision, touch, proprioception (the sense of where the limbs and other body parts are located in space) and from the vestibular system (organs in the inner ear that monitor head orientation, balance and motion).
Previous research has mostly focused on the role of vision and touch – for example by triggering the illusion of viewing one’s own body – but the vestibular system has largely been neglected. If it does play an important role we should expect that problems with the vestibular system – which often present as feelings of dizziness – lead to OBEs, but do they?
Historical case studies suggested that they might. And now, published in Cortex, the first systematic study of patients referred to a neurological specialist because of dizziness has found that they can.
Scent plays an often under-appreciated role in sexual attraction, helping to account for why visual attractiveness alone can’t explain just how physically attractive a person is perceived to be. But what role does our ability to smell our partners – or potential partners – play in actual experience?
We know from past research that men born without the ability to smell tend to have fewer sexual partners. And about half of people who lose their sense of smell, through infection or injury, report negative impacts on their sexual behaviour. However, this could be an indirect effect – an inability to smell is often also associated with depression or social insecurity, which can affect aspects of sexuality – and such studies do not tell us whether sense of smell is related to sexual experience among healthy people. Now, in a new paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Johanna Bendas at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, and her fellow researchers report evidence from healthy, young adults showing precisely that.
It’s well-known that we can easily miss objects in our environment that are outside the focus of our conscious attention. “Inattentional blindness” is demonstrated by the famous “invisible gorilla” studies, for example. But there’s a darker side to this phenomenon: if it happens while you’re driving – or if you’re a baggage checker at airport security – the consequences could be fatal.
Now a new paper, by Joshua Eayrs and Nilli Lavie at University College London, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shows that some people can handle more visual information than others before developing this and related kinds of attentional blindness, and this is because they have a greater visual perceptual capacity. “We identified a novel trait that is different from working memory, general intelligence or motivational factors,” Lavie said in a press release.
In a neat example of real life echoing a classic psychology experiment (I’m referring to Asch), #thedress was enough to make you think your friends were gas lighting you – how could it be that you and they were looking at the exact same picture and yet seeing entirely different things?
Of course there are many optical illusions, including others that involve colour (see, for example, the “checker shadow” illusion, pictured right). What was special about #thedress was that it triggered a bimodal split in perceptual experience among the population. Also, many illusions trigger a fluctuating percept, but once someone perceives the dress one way, they usually keep seeing it that way.
Viral hits happen overnight. Science is slow, but it’s catching up. With the passing of the years, numerous studies into #thedress have now been published – 23 according to a new review. Here we present you with a fascinating digest of what’s been discovered so far about the famous frock – researchers have made progress, certainly, yet much remains mysterious, making this a humbling experience for perceptual science.
In the adverts for anti-ageing skin products, everyone is smiling, positively blooming with youthfulness. A canny move by the marketeers you might think – after all, past research has found most of us believe smiling makes people look younger. It’s just that actually, it doesn’t. It makes you look older. That’s according to a new paper in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review that explores an intriguing mismatch between our beliefs and perceptions.
Research in clinical settings shows that some people with mental health problems experience extreme distress when hearing non-speech vocal sounds, like coughs and chewing noises, a phenomenon called “misophonia”. Now research from Amanda Seaborne at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Logan Fiorella at the University of Georgia, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, suggests that this issue exists in the broader population, and that people sensitive to these sounds perform poorly in their presence.
Seventy-two undergraduates sat in a cubicle and read a technical text about migraines for six minutes, before reporting what they remembered, answering questions on the text, and finally completing a questionnaire about their misophonia sensitivity (they rated how distressing they found sounds like “rustling papers, sneezing, chewing gum, tapping, eating crunchy foods, and heavy breathing”).For half the participants, a nearby cubicle contained a confederate working for the researchers who chewed gum loudly throughout the experiment. Participants in this condition who scored higher on the misophonia questionnaire performed worse at the comprehension measures than lower scorers.
Interestingly, the reverse pattern was found for the participants in the quiet control condition, with the more sound-sensitive students performing slightly better – perhaps because these conditions were the ones in which they naturally thrive. So misophonia seems to have an impact in non-clinical contexts (none of the rating scores reached clinical levels of sensitivity), although we can’t say whether its origin is in a subtle neurological difference or a psychological preoccupation. But it’s a good reminder that by honouring the expectations in designated quiet spaces, we may be helping others more than we know.
If you have a couple of minutes, click through to this survey site of “noisy gifs” – brief silent movies that, for some people at least, evoke illusory sounds. If you hear a thwack when fists collide with a punchbag, or a yell while watching a man silently scream, then you’re experiencing a “visual-evoked auditory response” (vEAR), also called “hearing motion synaesthesia”.
Ten years after the first, preliminary journal paper on the phenomenon, Christopher Fassnidge and Elliot Freeman at City University, London, report – in a new paper in Cortex – that it’s remarkably common, affecting perhaps 20 – 30 per cent of us. Fassnidge and Freeman also investigated what induces vEAR, providing clues to what’s going on in the brain.
Where is the future? The tendency in our culture – and most, but not all, others – is to compare the body’s movement through space with its passage through time: ahead are the things we are on our way to encounter. We intuit that the past is linked to the space behind and the future to that in front. But research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has found that some Western people buck this tendency: those born blind.
A short paper in the journal i-Perception presents a disconcerting visual illusion spotted “in the wild”: how stackable chairs, viewed from a certain angle, mess with your head. This is an unedited image, but your mind resists accepting it could be real. The illusion was first noticed in the office of lead author Nick Scott-Samuel at the University of Bristol, who notes in the paper that “it obtains in real life as well as in images, even when sober”.
The cause of the trick appears to be the two “edges” seen coming up from the near-base of the stack – marked AD and BC in the annotated version of the image below – which “suggests a change in depth along those lines which does not actually exist” and makes it seem as if the bars that run from one “edge” to another compose an outward face.
It misleads us a little like the Penrose triangle (see right), but whereas the triangle is actually impossible, the chairs only appear to be so – as demonstrated in this video where you can see the effect dip in and out. Scott-Samuel and his colleagues experimented with the chair stack and it appears that you need at least four chairs to create the effect.
You know the angles, you know the number: turn up to the meeting room early next time and use that recipe to astound even the most jaded eyes.
Some researchers hope that focusing on the cognitive, neural, genetic and social processes that contribute to symptom dimensions – like anxiety-depression or social withdrawal – may be more fruitful than trying to understand the causes of different diagnostic categories, like “schizophrenia” or “major depression”. It’s in this vein that a new paper in Biological Psychiatry has used a simple perceptual task to investigate how judgment confidence, judgment accuracy and metacognition (judgment insight) are related to various trans-diagnostic symptom dimensions in the general public.