How People See – Brain Shortcuts

Our vision trumps all our other senses. Half of the brain’s resources are dedicated to seeing and interpreting what we see. What our eyes physically perceive is only one part of the story. The images coming in to our brains are changed and interpreted. It’s really our brains that are “seeing.”

You think that as you’re walking around looking at the world, your eyes are sending information to your brain, which processes it and gives you a realistic experience of “what’s out there.” But the truth is that what your brain comes up with isn’t exactly what your eyes are seeing. Your brain is constantly interpreting everything you see.

What you think people are going to see on your Web page may not be what they do see. It might depend on their background, knowledge, familiarity with what they are looking at, and expectations. You might be able to persuade people to see things in a certain way, depending on how they are presented.

Kanizsa triangle
Kanizsa triangle

What do you see with the figure above? At first you probably see a triangle with a black border in the background, and an upside-down, white triangle on top of it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what there really is. In reality, there are merely lines and partial circles. Your brain creates the shape of an upside-down triangle out of empty space, because that’s what it expects to see. This particular illusion is called a Kanizsa triangle, named for the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa. It creates a similar effect with the image on its right.

The Brain Creates Shortcuts

The “phantom edge phenomena” (seeing an outline that is not actually there) is due to what neuropsychologists call the “T-effect.” Groups of neural cells see breaks in lines or shapes, and if given no further input, will assume that there is a figure in front of the lines. Scientists believe that this happens because the brain has been trained to view the break in lines as an object that could pose a potential threat.

Your brain creates these shortcuts in order to quickly make sense out of the world around you. Your brain receives millions of sensory inputs every second and it’s trying to make sense of all of that input. It uses rules of thumb, based on past experience, to make guesses about what you see. Most of the time that works, but sometimes it causes errors. With lack of additional information, the brain errs on the side of safety and perceives the space as an object. The circle is the most simple and symmetrical object, so the mind usually sees a circle unless active effort is made to see an alternate shape.

You can influence what people see, or think they see, by the use of shapes and colors. The figure below shows how color can draw attention to one message over another.

pic-160531-howpeoplesee2

Just by changing the color highlights, the message implied has also changed although the content remains the same.

On April 1, 2016, the US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, posted online a photo of a Winconsin Poll to thank his Winconsin supporters. This image drew flak from the people online because of misleading information. In the image, Donald Trump has posted in big fonts that he is has garnered 37% of the support in Wisconsin. But if we look closely, he is actually 1% behind his opposition, Ted Cruz, at 38%. Even if we factor in some margin of errors, basic mathematics will still say that 37 is less than 38. Another mistake is that the poll’s date is “3/13/3016” which is 1000 years from now.

pic-160531-howpeoplesee3

Although Donald Trump’s campaign team may reason this out as not in purpose, a typographical error, or it could even be an April Fools prank, our brain was led to believe that Donald Trump is ahead of the polls and that this is indeed from the current polling. This is because our brain is looking for shortcuts. We are attuned to accepting that highlighted and bigger texts are more important than those that of smaller ones. Our brain also immediately recognizes that the date is “3/31/2016” because we tend to understand written words when the first and last letters are in order, even if the interior letters are jumbled. It is recently coined as “Typoglycemia.”


The “How People See” is a 4-part article. The next part will discuss more on Peripheral Vision, Pattern Recognition, and Facial Recognition. Visit us again for the next part.

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