Isn’t it curious how lost or misplaced items seem to disappear completely? How many times has something fallen off a couch or table and never been seen again? The search for lost stuff is a fact of life, and everyone’s had a busy morning ruined or been late for an important meeting because they couldn’t find something they needed.
When we’re looking for a lost item, it always helps to consider its visual qualities (color, size, shape). Now, however, an interesting new study from Johns Hopkins University finds that characteristics we can’t see also help us find misplaced goods. It happens subconsciously, but researchers discovered that people were able to find lost objects much faster if they were aware of the item’s non-visual traits (hardness, softness).
“What makes the finding particularly striking from a vision science standpoint is that simply knowing the latent physical properties of objects is enough to help guide your attention to them,” says senior author Jason Fischer, a cognitive neuroscientist in JHU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, in a university release. “It’s surprising because nearly all prior research in this area has focused on a host of visual properties that can facilitate search, but we find that what you know about objects can be as important as what you actually see.”
We all have the conscious ability to choose what we focus or concentrate on. For example, we all know to keep our eyes on the road as we drive, as tempting as it is to read all those shiny billboards. On a subconscious level, though, our brains are constantly blocking out many more distractions. At any given moment in time, the mind shifts focus from stimuli it deems unnecessary; like how a constant noise tends to fade into the background the longer we hear it.
Similarly, our brains also instinctually provide us with relevant conceptual knowledge without us actually being aware of what’s happening. The study’s authors give the example of bagging groceries at the store. You know that hard, sturdy cans should go to the bottom of the bag while more fragile foods, like eggs, should go on top. You don’t have to see the eggs to know they’re fragile, and 95% of the time we all place the eggs on top without even thinking about it.
So, with these dynamics in mind, researchers pondered if knowing the physical attributes of a lost object would change how someone searches for it.
In pursuit of an answer to that question, a series of experiments were conducted in which participants were asked to find some everyday items in a messy, cluttered setting. Some study subjects were told about the hardness of each item. Sure enough, those who were given that information used it to find the objects much faster than the others. Most notably, none of those participants reported being aware that each object’s hardness was relevant to their search at all. Their minds used that information subconsciously.
“You’re automatically leveraging what you know about hardness to avoid being distracted by the other things,” Guo says.
“If you are searching for a sweater in a cluttered room, without any awareness of doing so you are able to avoid wasting time searching through the hard objects in the room and instead focus on the soft ones,” Fischer adds.
The more objects participants were asked to find, the more helpful physical context proved to be during the search. Even when subjects were only shown simple sketches of the lost items, that information still proved beneficial.
Eye movements were tracked as well. Across the board, when participants were provided with information revealing the objects’ hardness and softness, they didn’t waste time looking at objects that didn’t match the given description.
“To me what this says is that in the back of our minds, we are always evaluating the physical content of a scene to decide what to do next,” Fischer concludes. “Our mental intuitive physics engines are constantly at work to guide not only how we interact with things in our environment, but how we distribute our attention among them as well.”
This phenomenon goes far beyond just finding a lost wallet or misplaced car keys; our brains are always subconsciously interpreting data from our environment and cross-referencing it with our existing knowledge. This may explain why people often report “instinctively” knowing something is wrong in a given situation (“I have a bad feeling about this”) without actually realizing what is amiss consciously.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.