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A new research study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience demonstrates the phenomenal power of our expectations in shaping our perception of reality. So powerful in fact they can even make the face of one of the most famous men on Earth, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, seemingly disappear.
Have you ever expected your keys to be in the bowl, found that they are not, and then, convinced they must be utterly lost? You frustratedly search high and low only to find they were super easy to find — they were right in front of your face the whole time! It feels VERY weird, you are SURE you looked in that exact spot, multiple times even.
Well, it may be that they really did disappear — from your perceived vision anyway. These everyday blips in our reality may be linked with an expectation-based consciousness warping phenomenon that researchers of the study recently coined Barack Obama Blindness (BOB).
In the experiment, 20 participants’ attention was kept busy with a task on a computer, where they expected to see a pair of shapes and were asked if they were the same color or different. Then, after three color trials… surprise! Barack Obama’s face appeared in full view at the center of the screen, in the absence of any competing visual input — basically one step away from having signs saying “look here, look here”.
This is an important point because previous inattentional blindness experiments, also known as perceptual blindness experiments, do not clearly demonstrate the BOB phenomenon as they do not isolate the unexpected object from the initial attentionally demanding task’s stimuli. Like in this early experiment by Becklen and Cervone in the above video for example, or the well-known invisible gorilla videos.
Having the unexpected and expected stimuli mixed together therefore make it impossible to tell if inattentional blindness of the unexpected object is due to visual sensory competition with the expected objects, or if the participant’s beliefs about what they expect to see also play a role in perceptual blindness.
Yet surprisingly, despite the in your face nature of the new sensory competition-free inattentional blindness experiment:
60% of participants failed to notice the engaging face of Barack Obama directly before their eyes
You might be thinking that the participants actually did see Barack Obama, and that they simply forgot when they were later asked, and were not truly perceptually blinded. However, the researchers ruled this out by asking participants if they saw anything on the screen immediately after presenting Barack Obama in the center of their vision.
Thus the authors concluded that:
…the failure of participants to report the new stimulus demonstrates a true absence of conscious perception, and not mere forgetting.
Participants were then asked to identify which object appeared on the screen: Barack Obama, Angelina Jolie, a head of a lion, or the face of a clock. For the 60% that said they saw nothing, only 8.3% of these participants correctly selected Barack Obama. Even for the 40% that saw something, only half of them saw a human face that they correctly identified as Barack Obama, while the other half incorrectly chose the inhuman clock face. DOH!
In summary, when expecting to be tested about shapes, a measly 2 out of 20 people were able to consciously see and correctly identify Barack Obama when he was staring them in the face.
Funnily enough, repeating the process straight after the initial surprise, where Barack Obama appeared on the screen for a second time, expectations now changed and the element of surprise gone, 95% of the participants noticed him appear and correctly identifying Barack Obama from the object lineup.
Ultimately, reality really is what we make it. As demonstrated in mindfulness meditation research, perhaps cultivating a state of openness to possibilities and reducing one’s expectations and judgements allows our conscious perceptions to be more accurate perceptions of true reality.
Expect your keys to be absolutely anywhere and maybe you will be able to see them next time!
The real take home message is that our representation of the immediate world depends on its relevance to the task at hand, where expectations and beliefs can make even the most important objects go quite literally unseen.
A wise man, Heraclitus (c.535 BC – 475 BC), once said:
If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out, and difficult
Becklen, R., & Cervone, D. (1983). Selective looking and the noticing of unexpected events Memory & Cognition, 11 (6), 601-608 DOI: 10.3758/BF03198284
Mack A., Rock I. (1998). Inattentional Blindness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Persuh, M., & Melara, R. (2016). Barack Obama Blindness (BOB): Absence of Visual Awareness to a Single Object Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00118
Reynolds, J., & Chelazzi, L. (2004). ATTENTIONAL MODULATION OF VISUAL PROCESSING Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27 (1), 611-647 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.26.041002.131039
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