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.

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