Researchers Show That Paying Attention May Distort Our Reality

The mind is easy to trick: We think that focus helps to clarify what we're seeing, but a new study proves that it also has the ability to distort


According to new research, when we're told to pay attention to specific events in the world, our minds may not record reality as accurately as we would like. This could have big implications for activities that involve making decisions based on external actions and events.

"Figuring out where objects are in the world seems like one of the most basic and important jobs the brain does," says Brandon Liverence, a graduate student at Yale University. "It was surprising to discover that even this simple type of perception is warped by our minds." Liverence and his team had participants focus on two circles out of a group of four circles. The circles all moved and changed color, and the participant were asked to click a key when either of the two target circles turned red or blue.

When the trial (which only lasted a few seconds) was over, the circles all disappeared, and the participants were then asked to choose the locations that last contained the target circles.

Part of the results was encouraging, especially for people who drive, cross busy streets, or are competing in sporting events: Participants were fairly accurate in detecting where the circles had last been. When they did make errors, they fell into one of two categories. As previous research had found, participants tended to think that the targets were closer to the center of the display than they actually were. But the second finding was surprising: People also rated the two target objects as being closer to each other than they actually were, and said that the non-target objects were further apart than they actually were.

The study supports the increasing evidence showing that perception is just that -- perception. And paying attention to objects in the visual field doesn't ensure its accuracy. "Attention is the way our minds connect with things in the environment, enabling us to see, remember, and interact with those things," says Liverence. "We tend to think that attention clarifies what's out there. But it also distorts."

Indeed, other recent research has suggested that our ability to imagine objects or events can significantly influence our actions. Part of the reason that optical illusions and magic tricks can be so convincing is that the mind is so easy to trick -- which makes the world both enchanting and a bit unsettling.

We'll certainly keep abreast of the latest research, as experts uncover more and more about how the brain perceives and processes the world around it.

The research was carried out at Yale University, and will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Image: Creative Commons.

This article originally appeared on

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Health

Just In