Monday, February 27

Filtering Content: Efficiency Or Liability?

A team of researchers led by Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientists has identified how different neural regions communicate with each other in order to determine what we visually pay attention to and what to ignore. The study is a breakthrough in visual cognition.

Although the findings will be primarily used to guide research in visual and attention deficit disorders, the discovery has some far-reaching implications. Specifically, it could shed some light on how brains are trained to seek out affirmation-related content and how we might retrain brains to be more objective or, in the case of marketing, better understand how to weigh new information for consideration.

How can you ask someone to consider a red pencil when they are already looking for a yellow pencil?

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, used various brain imaging techniques to show exactly how the visual cortex and parietal cortex send direct information to each other through white matter connections in order to specifically pick out the information that we want to see.

For example, if the parietal cortex (which is where free will partially originates) tells the visual cortex to look for a yellow pencil, the visual cortex and parietal cortex send information to each other to help find relevant information. It will literally screen out other objects and/or colors to make finding the yellow pencil easier and more efficient.

However, there are many presumptions made before we ever start looking for a yellow pencil. We may assume that a pencil is the right instrument for the job. We may assume that the yellow pencil may have other attributes (such as being a no. 2 pencil). We may assume it is made by a specific manufacturer. We may assume that a yellow pencil is superior based on previous experiences with the yellow pencil. Everything we associate with the yellow pencil (consciously and subconsciously) might come into play to find what we're looking for.

But what if some or any of these assumptions are incorrect? What if a red pencil manufacturer has made a better instrument for the task at hand, but consumers have already trained their minds to screen out other writing instruments? How can the marketer bring attention to what people are not looking for?

How visual cognition shapes our world, and not always in the best way.

What if we think about this phenomenon on a grander contextual scale? It is possible that people are predisposed to look for things that either affirm their opinions or cause alarm because something seems dramatically out of place from how they want the world.

Depending on what we have trained our minds to look for — either information that makes us right or information that causes us to be alert — people generally find exactly what they are looking for without ever considering any other relevant data. It could explain why inferior but popular products frequently edge out lesser known superior products. It could be why certain news grabs our attention (mostly negative) while we dismiss more important news (mostly positive). It could be why some people immediately dismiss some political candidates based on age, ideology, and/or party affiliation.

"With so much information in the visual world, it's dramatic to think that you have an entire system behind knowing what to pay attention to," said Marlene Behrmann, professor of psychology at CMU and a renowned expert in using brain imaging to study the visual perception system. "The mechanisms show that you can actually drive the visual system — you are guiding your own sensory system in an intelligent and smart fashion that helps facilitate your actions in the world."

While Adam S. Greenberg, post-doctoral fellow in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences' Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, suggested that the research could help scientists find new ways to train white matter (the connections that help the visual cortex and parietal cortex communicate) to filter out irrelevant or unwanted information, one wonders if the other is possible — white matter can be trained to allow more information, thereby seeing a bigger picture and drawing well-reasoned conclusions that are not weighted by presumption.
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