In part one of this interview, we began exploring the limits of human perception with Daniel Simons, a Psychology professor and co-winner of an Ig Noble prize. This conversation is part two of that discussion.
Assuming you can name only one, what is one of the most popular myths associated with attention? How about one for memory?
We assume that we will automatically notice anything that appears before our eyes, regardless of what else we’re doing. But, in reality, we’re only aware of a tiny subset of the world around us, and our awareness depends critically on the focus of our attention. Without focusing our attention, we can look without seeing. We tend to miss unexpected objects and events because they do not attract our attention. And, without our attention, we don’t consciously perceive them.
The illusion that looking is the same as seeing underlies the mistaken belief that we can multitask effectively (we don’t notice what we’re missing, so we assume we’re not missing anything) and it contributes to dangerous behaviors like talking on a cell phone while driving.
Similarly, we assume that when we recall a personal experience vividly; that the richness of our memory means it must be accurate. The idea that we can remember our experiences as if our brain were a camcorder is fundamentally wrong. We don’t form a perfect record of our experiences. In fact, our memories are constructed from our experiences and our beliefs, expectations, and knowledge. And, they can become systematically distorted over time.
Are there specific groups of people more prone to experience cognitive illusions? Can we learn to avoid or at least minimize these illusions?
To a large extent, everyone is subject to cognitive limitations. Many of them are a byproduct of things we do well and that likely are beneficial. For example, the failure to notice unexpected objects and events is a consequence of our ability to focus attention and filter out distraction. The problem is not that we have such limits. It’s that we suffer from illusions about them. We think we’ll notice everything around us when we really won’t. That’s the illusion part — it’s a mistaken belief about our own minds. By learning about our limitations, we can begin to overcome our mistaken intuitions about our own minds. We can’t get rid of the limits themselves, but we might be able to lessen their impact. For example, if you know that talking on a phone while driving decreases your chances of noticing unexpected events, and if you know that you’ll be tempted to talk on the phone if you get a call, you can take steps to avoid that temptation — leave your phone in the trunk or in your back seat.
Who is your favorite writer? Favorite book?
I assume you mean for non-academic writing, but I’ll plug my favorite psychology book first, Ulric Neisser’s Cognition and Reality. It’s a readable and opinionated view of the nature of perception and attention, and it probably had a bigger influence on my thinking than any other. For non-academic writing, I’m a big fan of science fiction. My current favorite author is Vernor Vinge; I’m also a big fan of Ted Chiang’s short stories.
Do you have any new projects you are currently working on?
I have just finished teaching a graduate seminar on attention, perception, and magic and I’m excited to start some studies that draw inspiration from magicians to better understand the nature of attention and misdirection.
I want to thank Daniel Simons for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this interview for Psych Central. I commend the work of Simons and Christopher Chabris, his partner, for showing us that contrary to folk psychological theories, our minds don’t work the way we think they do. We think we know our own minds, but this isn’t so.
Chabris and Simons combine the work of other researchers with their own findings on attention, perception, memory, and reasoning to reveal how faulty intuitions often lead us astray.
Often, we think we experience and understand the world as it is, but our perceptions are sometimes, actually, nothing more than illusions.
Photo by Javier Kohen, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.