Last year, psychologist Ronald Rensink at the University of British Columbia proposed that some people have an alternative mode of visual experience ‚Äì one that involves sensing but not ‚Äòseeing‚Äô ‚Äì what Rensink dubbed ‚Äòmindsight‚Äô. Now his claims have been forcefully rebutted by Daniel Simons and colleagues who argue it‚Äôs far more mundane than that: it‚Äôs all to do with how cautious people are in deciding whether or not they‚Äôve seen something.
Rensink had performed a kind of change blindness experiment (see Hack #40) that involved participants reporting when they spotted a subtle change between two pictures. He invited participants to press one key when they ‚Äòsensed‚Äô a change between the pictures and to press another key only when they could ‚Äòsee‚Äô the change and knew where and what it was. Rensink reported in Psychological Science that a subset of participants (30 %) showed evidence of what he dubbed ‚Äòmindsight‚Äô: on a minority of trials they would report sensing the change at least a second earlier than they reported seeing it. ‚ÄúThis mode of perception involves a conscious (or mental) experience without an accompanying visual experience‚Äù, Rensink explained. ‚ÄúThe results presented here point towards a new mode of perceptual processing, one that is likely to provide new perspectives on the way that we experience our world‚Äù, he said.
But in this month‚Äôs issue of Psychological Science, Daniel Simons and colleagues at the University of Illinois dismiss Rensink‚Äôs findings. ‚ÄúProvocative claims merit rigorous scrutiny‚Äù, they said. ‚ÄúWe rebut the existence of a mindsight mechanism by replicating Rensink‚Äôs core findings and arguing for a more mundane explanation‚Ä¶‚Äù.
Simons team argue that it‚Äôs all to do with how people interpret the instructions for ‚Äòsensing‚Äô and ‚Äòseeing‚Äô ‚Äì that people who show Rensink‚Äôs mindsight are trigger-happy when it comes to saying they‚Äôve sensed a change, but very cautious when it comes to saying they‚Äôve seen exactly what that change is. By contrast, non-mindsighters interpret ‘sense’ and ‘see’ similarly, and are far more cautious about pressing the ‘sense’ button. In support of this, Simons’ team found that so-called mindsight participants (those sometimes showing a significant lag between sensing and seeing) were far more likely than non-mindsighters to wrongly report sensing a change on ‘catch-trials’ when there wasn’t actually a change between the pictures. What‚Äôs more, Simons’ team said, Rensink‚Äôs criteria for what constitutes mindsight are arbitrary anyway (he chose a lag of 1 second between ‚Äòsensing‚Äô and ‚Äòseeing‚Äô but if, for example, he‚Äôd chosen 1.5 seconds, far fewer subjects would have been classified as showing mindsight). All in all, mindsight is starting to look more like a guess than a new mode of seeing!