The way that people sometimes fail to pay attention to what’s going on can be surprising.
A celebrated 1990s experiment by the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons found that many people, when asked to watch a basketball video and record the number of times people wearing white passed the ball, were so focused on counting the passes that they failed to notice a gorilla walking across the court.
This is such a telling example of “inattentional blindness” that Chabris and Simons even named a book, The Invisible Gorilla, after it.
Experiments such as that fascinate Dr Daryl Fougnie, an assistant professor in psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“That highlights what is the grand illusion – we feel we have this capability to process what’s in front of us but we represent very little of that,” he says.
What we think we know and pay attention to in our surroundings is, says Dr Fougnie, quite different from what is represented in our minds.
“If you look around you, you have a sense that you have a complete representation of what your office looks like. You have this sense that you’re actually representing all that information. That’s an illusion. You hold very little information,” he says.
In a similar vein, people who are shown altered photographs often fail to notice what changes have been made, even if they are large ones.
“People are poor at detecting this and are really surprised when they see what has been changed. In everyday life, we don’t miss these things because these come with signals,” he said, giving motion as an example of such a signal.
“It’s a skill we want to have and yet it’s something we’re poor at. ”
Dr Fougnie has been working on peoblems similar to these for more than a decade.
After completing a PhD at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and a post-doctoral position at Harvard – where the gorilla experiment was carried out – Dr Fougnie brought his research to New York University Abu Dhabi in 2015.
A focus of his research is memory and the extent to which people can assess the quality of their memories.
“Most of the work in this area shows people are relatively good, if not a little overconfident. They know if they’re good at faces or good at names. They know what types of things they’re good at and what they’re not good at,” he says.
Despite this, in many circumstances people can find it difficult to accurately assess how reliable memories are.
As Dr Fougnie and two of his former Harvard colleagues, Dr Jordan Suchow and Dr George Alvarez, note in a recent paper they wrote together, several factors influence our confidence in our memories.
Among them are how memorable or how easy to perceive we believe certain types of events to be. What we know about our own skills and experiences is also important.
Awareness of memories and the way in which they are stored is known as “metamemory”, part of the wider field of “metacognition”, which relates to a person’s awareness of their thought processes.
In their paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Dr Fougnie and his colleagues note that metamemory is often not what it should be.
“Notoriously, our knowledge and beliefs about memory can lead us astray, causing us to be overly confident in eyewitness testimony or to overestimate the frequency of recent experiences,” the authors write.
In the study, titled Looking Inward and Back: Real-Time Monitoring of Visual Working Memories, Dr Fougnie and his colleagues stripped away all the external factors that can influence how reliable we perceive memories to be.
One part of the work involved asking people to look at a set of coloured dots on a screen and to report the colour of the dot they remembered the best, or the colour of a dot selected at random. Selecting the best-remembered dot requires an inward-looking comparison by participants of a number of memories.
The results showed that participants performed better when they selected their best-remembered dot than when they were asked to describe a randomly selected dot. What this shows is that they could recall and compare a number of memories and successfully choose the one that was strongest. The researchers describe what the participants were doing as “real-time monitoring” of their memory.
Another section of the research involved asking which of a number of cubes with three sides shaded in different ways test subjects remembered the worst.
“The idea is that people go to the worst-remembered one and are told to prioritise that,” says Dr Fougnie.
They were then asked to state which one they remembered best. In 91 per cent of cases, they chose the cube that they previously said they remembered worst. So by focusing on their worst-remembered cube, it became their best-remembered one.
This result suggests people have “a lot of control” over their memories, and Dr Fougnie’s group at NYU Abu Dhabi is exploring this further.
“This shows we know something about the nature of memory as it changes, but there’s a lot more to ask about what people know and how much they know,” he says.
“I’m interested in how rich memory representations are, how much we keep representations active when a stimulus disappears from the environment, and how much we are aware, and can access, this underlying process.”
Dr Fougnie believes the results of his recent research could have relevance to the general public.
“It seems useful for people to know they have a large amount of control over which information they will remember, even after that information is no longer visible,” he says.