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Old 02-09-2010, 04:00 AM
Mangetout Mangetout is offline
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Has this perceptual phenomenon been studied/documented? (training to notice specific things)

I'm not quite sure how to describe this perceptual phenomenon, except by examples. It may appear at first that I'm talking about confirmation bias, but it's not that, or at least not entirely that.

I find that if I'm searching for some specific type of thing that after a while, I can hand over the process of looking to some mental process other than the one that is consciously at the forefront of my attention - it's as if I can train my visual system to notice a specific kind of thing, then leave it alone until it alerts me with a possible match.

Examples:
Walking along a beach, looking for fossils, it's incredibly tiring to scrutinise every single candidate pebble consciously and thoughtfully - after a while, my eyes kind of glaze over and I start thinking about something else, except when an unusually-patterned object (often a fossil) enters my (wide) field of vision and I seem to be shaken to my senses to look at it.

Last year, I decided I would pick up every bit of dropped money I came across and would use this to buy lottery tickets (I won nothing) - this year, I'm doing the same, but saving up the money to fund this year's Christmas lunch (details here).
Now that I've been doing this for some months, I feel that I hardly need deliberately look for coins - indeed, in many cases, I'll be walking along and there is what I can only describe as a nearly palpable 'tug' on my eye, pointing it at a dropped coin on the floor.

Now obviously those sought objects have to be there to be found, so I'm not arguing for any kind of mystical 'seek and ye shall find' phenomenon.
And I also feel that it's not just confirmation bias - I really do seem to find more of the sought objects by 'getting my eye in', then not really focusing on the search, than I would if I concentrated all of my attention on the task (which seems to narrow my attention, which I think makes me miss things at the periphery of my view).

Now obviously, I'm describing what this feels like from the inside - and I don't really have any idea if there is in fact something quite intensive - and more intensive than a conscious search) going on without my awareness of it, but in summary, it does seem to me that I can train my perceptual system to notice certain specific things, then leave it alone until it finds one.

Am I talking any kind of sense here? Has this phenomenon been documented at all and does it have a name?
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  #2  
Old 02-09-2010, 06:05 AM
Half Man Half Wit Half Man Half Wit is offline
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I'm not sure I can really answer your question, but, at least according to what little I know about human perception, the phenomenon you are describing doesn't seem very mysterious to me -- IIRC, perception works at least in part surprisingly scientific: by generating hypotheses to be falsified through sensory data. Essentially, this allows the perceptual system to quickly dismiss huge swaths of input as uninteresting, and lightens the computational load of image recognition, making the task more manageable and significantly faster.

Thus, there's a limited number of objects of interest, and the visual data is mined for their presence -- for instance, faces are always of interest, so you could imagine the visual system running through the field of view, checking whether or not there's a face someplace: it's very hard to verify the finding of a face, building the whole thing up from its component parts -- eyes, nose, mouth, all further complicated by orientation, lighting, etc. -- but it's very easy to dismiss the hypothesis that there's a face there somewhere, just by checking whether or not there's a candidate shape for a face present (something somewhat like this, perhaps: ). If not, we know directly that there's no face anywhere, and can carry on with whatever else we're doing; if we do identify a candidate shape, we go on to proposing more finely grained hypotheses, to see whether or not this candidate turns out to actually be a face. At every level, if one hypothesis is falsified, the whole thing is shown to not be a face, and probably won't ever enter conscious consideration; only if enough hypotheses remain unfalsified is conscious attention drawn to the object.

The prize we're paying for this is the occasional false positive -- the virgin Mary on a piece of toast, say. But it's easy to see how this ends up being beneficial: if you're not checking for faces, but, say, for predators, it's probably better to get your fight or flight on one time too many than one time too few.

So, with you looking for fossils on the beach, what's probably happening is that your perceptual system constantly dismisses the hypothesis 'that's a fossil' when your gaze sweeps over the sand -- again, something far more easily done than examining every object in detail to see whether or not it is in fact a fossil; only if some object can't immediately be dismissed as being not a fossil is your conscious attention drawn to it.
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Old 02-09-2010, 06:25 AM
Mangetout Mangetout is offline
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Thanks - that makes a lot of sense. I hadn't really thought of it as pattern-matching, probably because I'd always looked at that as happening either because of innate/deeply ingrained conditioning (i.e. recognising faces) or conscious searching (looking for shapes in clouds), but it probably makes sense as a more general-purpose mental process than either of those.
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Old 02-09-2010, 08:51 AM
njtt njtt is offline
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It is called priming, and is an ubiquitous, well known, and much studied phenomenon in perceptual psychology, although the precise mechanisms by which it occurs remain controversial. In general, though, if you are consciously looking for, or are unconsciously led to expect that you may see a certain kind of thing, you will be much more likely to notice it, and will see it much more quickly, than otherwise.
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Old 02-09-2010, 09:39 AM
Mangetout Mangetout is offline
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Originally Posted by njtt View Post
It is called priming, and is an ubiquitous, well known, and much studied phenomenon in perceptual psychology, although the precise mechanisms by which it occurs remain controversial. In general, though, if you are consciously looking for, or are unconsciously led to expect that you may see a certain kind of thing, you will be much more likely to notice it, and will see it much more quickly, than otherwise.
Thanks for this - that gives me something to search on. I guess in that case, it is quite closely related to confirmation bias, except that in this case, the confirmation events have tangible outcomes, rather than just being a collection of impressions.
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Old 02-09-2010, 11:09 AM
ivn1188 ivn1188 is offline
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Priming is often demonstrated by the classic cocktail party scenario where you hear your name amidst the background conversational babble and your attention is immediately focused on that particular conversation.
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Old 02-09-2010, 11:32 AM
njtt njtt is offline
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Originally Posted by Mangetout View Post
I guess in that case, it is quite closely related to confirmation bias
I suppose there is some analogy, and maybe some overlap, but they are not that closely related. Confirmation bias, by definition, misleads you, but priming generally does not. In general it is a good thing. You see (or hear, or whatever) what you need to see (for the task at hand) more quickly and reliably than you otherwise would, and you do not waste cognitive resources on irrelevant stuff.
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Old 02-09-2010, 12:31 PM
rjk rjk is offline
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Half Man Half Wit gives a pretty good answer, but I find it easier to think of it more or less in reverse: most of what you see is filtered out down in the hardware someplace (i.e. in the visual areas of the brain, if it even gets that far), and then interrupts your consciousness if anything interesting shows up. We don't even really "know" there's nothing significant out there; we only know when there is something to see.
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Old 02-09-2010, 12:37 PM
obfusciatrist obfusciatrist is offline
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How about the opposite. When you can't see what you're looking for? Such as the TV remote that fell under the couch and you've looked under the couch 3 times and it wasn't there and you tear apart the living room and finally look under the couch again and there it is, right where you looked the first three times.

Sometimes I feel like I can only find things when I'm not looking for it.
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Old 02-09-2010, 12:41 PM
stolichnaya stolichnaya is offline
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An example of priming that a lot of folks experience is in the time after a new car purchase. Once you buy a certain kind of car, assuming it is not extremely uncommon, you will start to see it everywhere. Your brain recognizes the silhouette as relevant and so it percolates it to the top of your consciousness.
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Old 02-09-2010, 03:43 PM
Mangetout Mangetout is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by njtt View Post
I suppose there is some analogy, and maybe some overlap, but they are not that closely related. Confirmation bias, by definition, misleads you, but priming generally does not. In general it is a good thing. You see (or hear, or whatever) what you need to see (for the task at hand) more quickly and reliably than you otherwise would, and you do not waste cognitive resources on irrelevant stuff.
They still sound like they might be based on some of the same underlying processes - just with priming being an example of when the thing works right and confirmation bias an example of when it works wrong. (after all, if confirmation bias is as you say, not a good thing, then isn't a feature, so it must be a bug in some other feature)
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Old 02-09-2010, 06:39 PM
njtt njtt is offline
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Originally Posted by rjk View Post
. . . I find it easier to think of it more or less in reverse: most of what you see is filtered out down in the hardware someplace (i.e. in the visual areas of the brain, if it even gets that far), and then interrupts your consciousness if anything interesting shows up. We don't even really "know" there's nothing significant out there; we only know when there is something to see.
I disagree. It is not that everything goes in and then most of it gets filtered out and thrown away, leaving only what you want to know about. Rather, in the first place, 'you' (by which I mean not just your conscious self, but also a lot of unconscious, sub-personal neural mechanisms that are always on the lookout for threats, and safe places to put your foot down as you take a step, and so on) only take in the sort of information 'you' are actually looking for. It is not that huge amounts of mostly useless information are constantly pouring down your optic nerve, only for most of it to be discarded by the brain; rather, the eyes are constantly darting about in different directions seeking out the information for which you are primed (though not just the things that you are consciously looking for, like fossils, but also all the information you, as an organism, need to keep you stable and safe, and to keep you from running into things or falling down).
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Old 02-09-2010, 07:04 PM
njtt njtt is offline
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Originally Posted by Mangetout View Post
They still sound like they might be based on some of the same underlying processes - just with priming being an example of when the thing works right and confirmation bias an example of when it works wrong. (after all, if confirmation bias is as you say, not a good thing, then isn't a feature, so it must be a bug in some other feature)
Yes, I suppose so, but confirmation bias, as I understand the term, it mainly operates at a higher cognitive level, the level of belief and reasoning. Someone suffering from confirmation bias has some fondly held belief, and they tend to ignore or dismiss facts that tell against it while giving lots of attention and credence to any that seem to support it. Priming works at a lower cognitive level, the level of experience: when you are primed for fossils, you actually see fossils, ones that you otherwise might not have noticed.

I suppose, though, that, pareidola, where people actually seem (to themselves) to see the Virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast, or an alien face in rock formations on Mars, or whatever, could be regarded as a sort of confirmation bias at the perceptual, experiential level, and they probably do arise from some sort of malfunctioning of the mechanisms responsible for priming.
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Old 02-09-2010, 07:58 PM
Mangetout Mangetout is offline
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Ah. I see what you mean. I think priming might well be one of the things that can feed the cognitive processes of confirmation bias, in that case - because even with cognitive bias, there can still be some real thing there to be noticed, but the fact of noticing it is then awarded higher significance than it deserves. Although of course cognitive bias isn't limited to noticing physical objects - it can manifest in other ways.
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Old 02-09-2010, 08:10 PM
Gbro Gbro is offline
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Originally Posted by Mangetout View Post
They still sound like they might be based on some of the same underlying processes - just with priming being an example of when the thing works right and confirmation bias an example of when it works wrong. (after all, if confirmation bias is as you say, not a good thing, then isn't a feature, so it must be a bug in some other feature)
I will toss OCD as a possible underlying process. Maybe a more focused OCD.
example;
While traveling with a hunting partner, he would pick out service(fuel) stations much sooner than i. Two times after returning home from a trip I scheduled eye doctor appointments, only to find my eyesight was ok.
Then i figured it out, Old Smiley never drove past a service station without checking the price and committing it to chemical memory
He lives 50 miles away and never forgets to ask what gas is selling for here when he or i call.
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Old 02-10-2010, 01:54 AM
Leo Bloom Leo Bloom is offline
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Originally Posted by stolichnaya View Post
An example of priming that a lot of folks experience is in the time after a new car purchase. Once you buy a certain kind of car, assuming it is not extremely uncommon, you will start to see it everywhere. Your brain recognizes the silhouette as relevant and so it percolates it to the top of your consciousness.
I've noticed this--as have many others, I think--with new words. Once you've learned one, damned if you don't read it somewhere else in short order.
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