Learning to See the Invisible
Photo via flickr by Sweet J (away)
A new study at Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Germany reveals that our brains can be trained to consciously see stimuli that would normally be invisible.
Lead researcher Caspar Schwiedrzik from the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Germany said the brain is an organ that continuously adapts to its environment and can be taught to improve visual perception.
“A question that had not been tackled until now was whether a hallmark of the human brain, namely its ability to produce conscious awareness, is also trainable,” Schwiedrzik said. “Our findings imply that there is no fixed border between things that we perceive and things that we do not perceive — that this border can be shifted.”
The researchers showed subjects with normal vision two shapes, a square and a diamond, one immediately followed by a mask. The subjects were asked to identify the shape they saw. The first shape was invisible to the subjects at the beginning of the tests, but after 5 training sessions, subjects were better able to identify both the square and the diamond.
The ability to train brains to consciously see might help people with blindsight, whose primary visual cortex has been damaged through a stroke or trauma. Blindsight patients cannot consciously see, but on some level their brains process their visual environment. A Harvard Medical School study last year found that one blindsight patient could maneuver down a hallway filled with obstacles, even though the subject could not actually see.
Schwiedrzik said the new research may help blindsight patients gain conscious awareness of what their minds can see, and he suggested that new research should address whether the brains in blindsight patients and people with normal vision process the information the same way.
In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, game designer Will Wright explains that we take in more data than our mind is conscious of—that our brain is a filter— and he wonders how do we get through the filter?
If you look at typical human senses and do a rough estimate of the data coming in through them, the visual sense takes in about 100 million bits per second, auditory is about 10 million bits per second, touch is about 100 thousand bits per second, etc, etc. So our total sensory input, at any given time, is over 100 million bits per second. But yet our conscious stream is something like 200 or 300 bits per second. So there’s something like a million-to-one difference between the total amount of data our bodies are taking in and the amount that we’re consciously aware of and thinking of. It seems from that you can kind of gather that probably 95% of our intelligence is a filtering function. How much of that millions of bits of information are we ignoring? And how are we picking out the bits that are relevant for us to put our attention on? I think there’s a remarkable amount of our intelligence that actually is ignoring the world intelligently. And we’re just noticing very small bits of it at any given point in time. So pumping a lot more information into the person, the fact is, most of it is going to get ignored. That’s what our brain is there for. A lot of our brain is there to, basically, filter out most of this data coming into us. I think what’s almost more powerful is how do we get through that filter?
How do we give the player data that they will determine is relevant to whatever they’re doing at the time? Whatever problem they’re solving, whatever experience they’re in. And then once they get that small amount of data, they can decompress it in their imagination into a vast, elaborate world. So I think a lot of what’s important to keep in mind is that, in games, we’re actually running on two processors. There’s the processor in front of you on the desktop, and then there’s the processor in your imagination. And really what we want to do, for the most part, is program the processor in your imagination.