100 Things You Should Know About People: #48 — What You See Is Not What Your Brain Gets

Can you read this?:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, the oredr of lteetrs in a wrod is nto vrey iprmoetnt. Waht mttaers is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The ohter letetrs can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed wthuot mcuh probelm. Tihs is bcauseae yuor brian deos not raed ervey lteter, but raeds wrods and gruops of wrods.

I came across a similar paragraph in a book on Cognitive Psychology (Solso, 2005).

What our eyes see is not what our brain ends up with — We think that we are walking around looking at the world around us with our eyes, and that our eyes are sending information to the brain which processes it and gives us a realistic experience of “what’s out there”. But the truth is that what our brain comes up with is not exactly what our eyes are actually seeing.

The great interpreter — Our brain is constantly interpreting everything it sees. Take, for example, the picture below:

Gestalt illusion

What do you see? Your first reaction is probably that you are looking at a triangle with a black border in the background, and a white triangle upside down on top of it. Of course that’s not really what is there, is it? What’s there are some partial lines and some partial circles. Your brain creates the shape of an upside down triangle out of blank space, because that is what it is expecting to see. This particular illusion is called a Kanizsa triangle, named after an Italian psychologist (G. Kanizsa) that first came up with it in 1955.

Shortcuts to the world — Our brains create these shortcuts in order to try and quickly make sense out of the world around us. There are so many (millions) of sensory inputs coming into our brain every second, that it has to try to make it all make sense. So it uses rules of thumb, and extrapolates what it has experience with, to make guesses about what it is seeing. Most of the time that works, but sometimes it causes errors.

What you design may not be what people see — The take-away is that what we think people are going to see may not be what they do see. It might depend on their background, knowledge, familiarity with what they are looking at, and expectations. Conversely, we might be able to persuade people to see things in a certain way, depending on how they are presented. Here’s another example from the Solso book:

Stop War, Peace Now

By using different colored backgrounds we can draw attention and change the meaning of the sign.

What do you think? Do you think designers use these principles to draw attention on purpose? If you are a designer do you use these ideas? If we can read so well with all these misspellings, are typos even a problem?

Here’s the Solso book reference: Cognitive Psychology, edited by Solso, 7th edition, Allyn and Bacon, 2005.


Did you find this post interesting? If you did, please consider doing one or more of the following:

add your comment
subscribe to the blog via RSS or email
sign up for the Brain Lady newsletter
share this post

100 Things You Should Know About People: #49 -- The Brain Looks For Simple Patterns
100 Things You Should Know About People: #47 -- People Value A Product More Highly If It Is Physically In Front Of Them

16 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #48 — What You See Is Not What Your Brain Gets”

  1. in response to that first paragraph:

    Taht tehory saekps olny to
    the fact taht our palopur
    vaabcloruy is eaabgilmnrrssy
    uacehiinopssttd and mabillnoosyc.

  2. Great article, Susan. You’ve taken a complex topic and made it easy to understand.

    I use these principles in my work all the time. Some of the most interesting logo designs have negative space that forms another figure that you “see,” even though it’s not there — the arrow in the FedEx logo, for example.

    The way you present words — the order, arrangement and graphic treatment — has a huge effect on how they’re interpreted. As designers we have to remember to step back from what we’re working on to make sure there’s not a different message coming through than the one we intend.

  3. I’d like to add a bit of social proof that this blog is so worth the read. I hope you’re doing well, Susan… since meeting you last year I’ve been exploring a lot about persuasive design. We’ll be taking some of those lessons learned and doing some A/B/N testing in the near future. Needless to say we’re very excited. Glad to see that your blog has really come to life!

  4. Thanks for the link, Joren. It’s an interesting video, but I think he’s missing the point. He says that the words and phrases are such that you can anticipate what the word should be. And that means that the effect is not valid. But that’s the whole point. We DO anticipate what the word should be. That’s the main reason the jumbled up letter paragraph is so interesting. If the concept were too abstract or the words too hard to anticipate the whole effect wouldn’t work. But it does. Because our brains are, in some respects, ignoring what’s “real” and imposing what “should be”.

  5. Hi Susan,

    Enjoyed your guest appearance on Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio.

    This idea of the brain interpreting what it perceives by rearranging and filling-in the blanks applies also to storytelling, whether in fiction or business story telling.

    Certain authors overwhelm with detailed descriptions that don’t reveal much about the character, locale, or situation. More skillful writers take a single, telling detail and use it as an effective anchoring symbol.

    The latter approach produces more readable content. The reason is exactly what you are writing about here. The reader takes the small detail and, through an act of their own imagination, recreates the character, locale, or situation.

    How much more personal the result! And how much more fun, because it is interactive.


  6. Yes, stories are very powerful. There is research showing that people remember information better when it is in story form.

    Here is the link to the interview with Brian Clark on his Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio program for any of you who might be interested:


  7. What we see is definitely not what our brains gets! There is also intriguing research and results about our ability to actually see; in that our RAS only filters what is important to us, or what has an emotional trigger for us. Hence, to a very great extend our conciousness is our reality. I believe that it is our ability to understand how we think-metacognition, and to use what we see, feel and think to live our best lives, make our greatest contribution, engage our true purpose that is our individual and collective journey!

    Best, Irene

  8. Pingback: Copyblogger Weekly Wrap | KrNetAffiliate-The Blog
  9. Okay, so my first thought, as I began READING, was, “Oh, she’s misspelled ‘Cambridge’ in the first sentence. How did that slip through and not get corrected by now?”

    My second thought was, “Oh, wait a minute; she’s also misspelled ‘University’. That’s kinda odd….”

    THEN I realized the whole sentence was “corrupt”, and THAT lead to the recognition of the “gag”.

    But it did occur in four distinct steps of noticing ‘Cmabrigde’ and reacting, noticing ‘Uinervtisy’ and reacting, then seeing the whole sentence and finally full recognition. (Maybe I’m just slow. ;-)

    It was interesting to observe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.