Category: Perception

Three years of research into #thedress, digested – a lesson in humility for perceptual science

The_Dress_(viral_phenomenon).pngBy Christian Jarrett

Three years ago, in a time before Trump and Brexit and Yanny and Laurel, someone posted an overexposed photograph of a black and blue striped dress on Tumblr. Soon millions of people had seen it and started arguing about it. The reason? It quickly became apparent that about half of us – more often women and older people – perceive the dress, not as black and blue, but white and gold.

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?

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The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of grey, via Wikipedia

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.

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Contrary to popular belief, smiling makes you look older

GettyImages-498317079.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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People with “misophonia” find background chewing sounds so annoying it affects their ability to learn

Young woman in dress blowing bubbleBy Alex Fradera

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.

Effects of background chewing sounds on learning: The role of misophonia sensitivity

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

Around 20 to 30 per cent of us hear something when viewing silent videos – do you?

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People who hear silent videos are more likely to report other synaesthesias, including seeing flashes upon hearing sounds in the dark / giphy.com

By Emma Young

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. 

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Why do we think of the future as being in front? New clues from study of people born blind

GettyImages-811434286.jpgBy Alex Fradera

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.

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A psychologist noticed this cool chair illusion in his office

10.1177_2041669517752372-fig1.gifBy Alex Fradera

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.

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160px-Penrose-dreieck.svg.pngIt 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.

Stacking Chairs: Local Sense and Global Nonsense

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

Different psychiatric symptom dimensions have opposite associations with confidence and metacognition

 

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Decision accuracy was unrelated to symptom dimensions, but confidence and metacognition were. Figure via Rouault et al

By Christian Jarrett

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.

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There’s an evolutionary explanation for why we’re surprisingly bad at recognising each other’s laughter

GettyImages-667207606.jpgBy Alex Fradera

We have a mostly impressive ability to identify people we know based on the sound of their voice, but prior research has uncovered an intriguing exception – we’re not very good at discerning identity from laughter. Now Nadine Lavan and her colleagues have published research in Evolution and Human Behavior that looks into why this might be and what it says about our evolutionary past.

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There may be a sense in which expert athletes see things in slow motion

GettyImages-543894324.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Experienced sports players aren’t just highly skilled at executing their own actions, they also have what often seems like a supernatural ability to read the game, to watch other players and anticipate what’s going to happen next. A clever new study in Psychological Research offers insight into the brain basis of this aspect of sporting ability – the findings suggest that expert basketball players simulate in their minds the actions of other players in something akin to slow-motion, presumably giving them more time to interpret and read the actions.

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Believers in conspiracy theories and the paranormal are more likely to see “illusory patterns”

GettyImages-177765632.jpgBy Emma Young

Democratic bankers caused the global financial crisis to get Barack Obama elected. 

Horoscopes are right too often for it to be a coincidence. 

Irrational beliefs – unfounded, unscientific and illogical assumptions about the world – are widespread among “the population of normal, mentally sane adults” note the authors of a new study in European Journal of Social Psychology. It’s been proposed that they arise from a mistaken perception of patterns in the world. But though this idea is popular among psychologists, there’s been surprisingly little direct evidence in favour of it. The new work, led by Jan-Willem van Prooijen at the Free University of Amsterdam, helps to fill the void.

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