Berlin cognitive science safari: report

So I’m back from my time in Berlin at the BMW Guggenheim Lab. As announced previously, I was there to give a talk about how perception works, and how cities control our perception. If you’re a regular reader nothing I said would have been earth-shattering – it was a tour through some basics of perception and attention. I’ll just highlight two points:

Perception is about meaning. We so effortlessly transform visual input into percepts that we can forget what a difficult task it is. Fortunately we have a heap of dedicated brain machinery to do this for us. A common mistake is to think of perception as mere projection on an inner screen. Part of this fallacy is to think that perception is trivial, but another important part is to think that perception is about the production of images of some sort. Perception is the production of meaning, not the production of images. Our associations and experience are incorporated in the act of perception, so that they are intrinsic to the perceptual act (not somehow added “on top”, or as an after thought). This goes so way to explaining why foreigners appear so stupid in cities. In know that personally I feel my IQ drop at least 15 points as soon as the plane touches down in a foreign country. Native city dwellers have learn to read the city, through experience forming webs of association that build up into symbols. This allows them to instantly perceive what different scenes in the city mean for how they should act. Here’s an example I used in my talk.

Outside Berlin Zoo, looking for the underground: which way should I go? The visual sign for the U-bahn actually forms a tiny fraction of the visual field, so small that I’d bet it is invisible to the majority of my peripheral vision. To a resident of Berlin the way to the tube is obvious, perceptual learning ensures that they don’t even have to think about which symbol to look for, or what it means. The accumulation of thousands of pieces of perceptual expertise is what makes us natives in a city, and what renders us flailing when abroad.

Attention is co-constituted with history and the environment. What we notice depends on what we are seeking, what we have previously experienced and the world around us. We can choose to look for something, or concentrate on something, but our attention can also be driven by factors outside of our
direct control. Advertisers know this, and hence we get bright adverts, moving adverts, and the plethora of adverts which use faces and particularly eyes. Light contrasts, movement and human eyes are all elements which are fundamentally wired into the operation of our visual system. Advertisers are using them to perform a subcortical hijack of what we look at as we navigate the city. The psychology of advertising is a different talk, in Berlin it occurred to me that attention could be a useful, concrete, model generally for thinking about how our agency is spread between self and world.

After the talk was the real highlight – a cognitive science safari where we went out into the city and tried out some interventions based on classic experiments from psychology. Demonstration of strange allure of a crowd all looking the same way worked reasonably well (looking up is definitely more attention-capturing than horizontal gaze). So did ‘reading’ someone’s country of origin from their appearance alone, but the real treat of the tour was the change blindness ‘door’ experiment

This video shows one run of the experiment (thanks to tour particpant Hans Huett for taking it. Jump to about 0:50 for the action). We can see Matt Craddock and another volunteer (sorry, I didn’t catch your name) waiting for an unsuspecting member of the public. After engaging him in asking for directions, Yunus (my Berlin fixer) and Jakub Limanowski ( reader and volunteer), arrive from around the corner, carrying the door. After swopping Matt for Jakub we can see the member of the public continuing giving directions as if nothing has happened – he was blind to the change! Later we tried a more extreme change, swopping an older, shorter, beardless gentleman into Matt’s place – again it worked, asking the question of just how extreme a change you could make and the phenomenon still work.

The moral of this story is not that many people are stupid, just that attention is a double-edged sword. The good citizens of Berlin focus hard on giving directions, not on monitoring the identity of their interlocutor for signs of an improbable change. Yes, the phenomenon shows how much of the environment we are not aware, but it is also a back-handed tribute to our ability to focus our attention where we want.

9 thoughts on “Berlin cognitive science safari: report”

  1. “I(n) know that personally I feel my IQ drop at least 15 points as soon as the plane touches down in a foreign country.”…..
    now we need to know if it goes back up when you go home, or if this is an ongoing process 😉

  2. Was the directions-giver a german? They can be so shy and over-polite that he might have noticed the swapping and not said anything. Just because.

    Anyway, the article is extremely interesting, it’s a pity that I missed this.

    1. In the video above, the guy was German. Out of the 5 times we tried it, IIRC, all but one was German (I think). The last one, I’m not sure – I think she had a Spanish accent. It failed twice, but both times because of something going wrong in the execution: once when the woman had seen the guys with the door around the corner, so was immediately suspicious when she saw them coming (after her, I only asked people coming from the other direction); and once when the guy stopped them from carrying the door between us. The other three times, they carried on giving directions as if nothing had happened. In particular, the guy in the video was completely shocked, to the extent he almost didn’t believe it until I came back. The first person we asked didn’t notice – although the girl he was with did but didn’t say anything. The last one – the non-German – said she noticed something odd but wasn’t sure – specifically, she noticed a height difference (“I thought something was different because when he was asking for directions I was looking up at him and when I was giving directions I was looking down at him!”)

      I was just amazed it worked at all 🙂

  3. “Perception is the production of meaning”

    I completely agree but where can I read/cite this argument/research?

    1. Ben, If you’re looking for more on how perception is the production of meaning, I would start with Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenology of Perception.” Hope it helps!


  4. I dare say owning a pet bird instead of a dog challenges your brain’s perception. Everything a dog does is pretty staightforward… Often closely related to human reactions and mind states. Not so with a parrot, or my pet budgies. I still can’t figure out what they are blabbing about. Sounds like aimless random sounds. But nothing nature does is in vain right? So is my budgie just wasting his breath? My mind still tries to sort out the different ‘sound’ units that constitute their vocabulary. Most people say it gets on their nerves but I think classical music, as opposed to pop does that sometimes to most people for the _same reasons_. The complex juxtaposition of sounds is at times a challenge to sort out and make sense of, especially when one is focusing on other things.

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