Daniel Simons is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois where he heads the Visual Cognition Laboratory. His research explores the limits of awareness and memory, the reasons why we often are unaware of those limits, and the implications of such limits for our personal and professional lives. In addition to more than 100 scholarly papers, he has penned articles for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Chronicle of Higher Education (among others). In 2010, he and his colleague Christopher Chabris co-authored the New York Times bestseller, The Invisible Gorilla.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you. How did it make you feel?
Nothing recent comes to mind immediately, but I’m regularly surprised to discover that my intuitions about how a study would turn out were wrong. One of the greatest joys in conducting research about perception and attention is that we can still be surprised by unexpected results. Visual perception is among the oldest areas of research in psychology, and we have a pretty good grasp of the basic workings of the visual system, but we still encounter and discover new things just by looking closely. Some years ago, for example, we discovered a novel visual fading effect. We were developing some materials for another study, and as we were scrolling through a set of possible images to use, the entire scene faded to uniform color. It was an accidental discovery, but led to a series of studies of this new, big effect. It continually amazes me that we know so much about human perception and behavior, but it’s still so common to find new and previously unnoticed quirks about how our minds work.
What are some of the factors that affect our not noticing events around us?
That has been an active area of research for decades. Most research on the topic focuses on when we notice what we’re looking for. That is, when we search for something, what factors lead to us finding it efficiently or slowly. Most of my work focuses on the detection of unexpected events, and those seem to function differently. In general, we tend to notice unexpected things most frequently when they are similar to the other things we’re focusing on and different from those we’re ignoring. At some level, that’s not particularly surprising — we see what we’re looking for. The surprising part is that we can miss truly dramatic objects and events that are fully visible when our attention is “set” the wrong way.
Can we learn to become better at noticing?
Not in general. We can change how we focus attention on an event or scene, but we likely can’t increase our capacity to detect unexpected things. A magician watching an act might focus their attention on different aspects of the performance than an audience member might. In so doing, the magician might be more likely to zero in on aspects of the technique or perhaps spot the method whereas the audience member might be more attentive to the effect and banter. But, the total amount of information they take in might be comparable. The magician might notice fewer of the method-irrelevant details and the audience member is unlikely to notice the method itself. There is little or no evidence that we can fundamentally increase the basic cognitive capacity to notice. We can get more practiced and efficient at taking in some types of information, of course, But, that’s more a matter of changing the nature of the information we take in rather than changing our capacity for attention in general.
Has your research cast doubts on your own perception of reality?
Not really. For the most part, our visual system and our attention system functions remarkably well for what we need it to do. (If it didn’t, our species likely would not have survived). We typically do see the world as it is, even if we don’t see as much of it at any time as we think we do. More than our failures of awareness, I’m interested in the mismatch between our intuitions about perception and the reality of what we perceive. It’s not that our perception of reality is in doubt. The issue is that we think we see and notice far more of our world than we actually do.
You’re in the enviable position of doing research that has captured the public’s attention through TV, print and viral videos. What has been the best parts of this and are there parts that are less than positive?
It’s a strange position to be in, when your videos take on a life of their own. Had I known that the original studies would become viral videos, I would have filmed them in higher quality. For me, it’s great if these videos cause people to think more deeply about what they see and notice. And, in some contexts, it might make a difference in their lives. For example, some people might stop talking on the phone while driving.
Video source: http://www.dansimons.com/videos.html
How has your work impacted life outside the research lab? Courts of law, car safety etc.
I’m not sure that my work has had much impact at a policy level, although I know that the concepts have come up in court cases. People have used some of what my colleagues and I write about to help explain real-world problems like distracted driving or cases in which people accidentally leave their kids or pets in a hot car (most people are convinced that they would never do that and they tend to assume the parents did it deliberately, but the parents would have been just as convinced before it happened to them).
I spotted a small reference on your website to research into “attention and depression” can you tell me more?
There are some models of anxiety and depression that predict that people suffering from anxiety will be less able to focus attention and filter out distraction. My collaborators and I were interested in whether those effects would be similar to the effect of trying to do two things at once. If you try to do a demanding memory task while also doing a visual search task, they can interfere with each other. We were looking at whether depression/anxiety would have a similar effect on visual search performance as working memory does. I’m not a clinical psychologist, so this was work done in collaboration with come of my colleagues in that sub-field of psychology. They’re the real experts on the effects of depression and anxiety on attention.
Having attended the Science of Magic Association (SOMA) conference in Chicago, what surprised you during the event? Can you see more fruitful overlap between your work and magicians? And is this one way or do you think both parties can learn from the other?
I’ve talked with Tony Barnhart about possible collaborations over the years, and I’ve talked with many other magicians as well. So far, I haven’t conducted any studies with magicians, but I would like to. I’ve long thought that the magic is a great source of inspiration for attention research, and it’s great to know that magicians sometimes take inspiration from the research community as well.