Seeing is believing…isn’t it?

London Canary Wharf

Here we are in the midst of series 8 of ‘The Apprentice’ and I bet that I wasn’t the only person that spent the first series, way back in 2005, wondering where about in Canary Wharf, Siralan’s (as he was back then) offices were? The rapid images of Canary Wharf and the City of London surrounding the famous boardroom scenes really left me with that impression.

Well, I’ve got a lot older and maybe a little wiser (?) since, and know now that Lord Sugar’s offices are out in Essex and the famous boardroom is a set in a TV studio in West London.  But if there hadn’t been so many series for me to ponder over would I have ever considered the reality of where the office and boardroom were? I doubt it, it would have washed over me and I would have continued with the belief that they were near Canary Wharf somewhere. Does it matter? Probably not in this case, it’s irrelevant to me where Lord Sugar’s boardroom is but what about other situations?

I find it quite disturbing that seeing is so closely linked to believing. Now, I know that it’s advantageous for us to believe our eyes otherwise I’d have been run-over by a bus long before now but it also bothers me the way this is so easily used against me. Now I’m not talking about ‘The Apprentice’ here but what about news broadcasts or political campaigns?

We know already from other posts how impactful images are on us and how they are processed in a holistic way in the brain, stimulating our emotions and our expectations. Images are much closer to having the experience than words are. So I find it strange that we can get mad about a David Attenborough programme using polar bears in a zoo rather than in the wild because that’s a documentary and therefore must be authentic but we don’t give any thought to news bulletins or political broadcasts and how authentic they may be. Why do we think documentaries or news are more ‘real’ than a drama or comedy? After all they are all created by people, so can only ever be from a subjective view point as they are all cut, edited and manipulated, even if that’s only through the camera angles used and they way the picture is cropped.

Back to that rapid editing effect – what surrounds key moments and characters seems to be highly impactful on our perceptions. There was a famous experiment back in the early years of Russian cinema around 1920 when film maker Lev Kuleshov was experimenting with editing techniques. A lot of what is said about the experiment is anecdotal, as apparently Kuleshov himself couldn’t remember in later life exactly what had gone on and what shots were used. But the upshot is still the same, he cut together a short film in which a shot of the actor Ivan Mosjoukine’s blank and expressionless face was alternated with other images – allegedly a beautiful woman, a child’s coffin and a bowl of soup. When shown to audiences the viewers believed that the actors emotional reaction changed, they attributed such things as seeing hunger in his face when connected with the soup….but it was the same shot of his face each and every time. Viewers were bringing their own emotional reactions and then attributing them onto the blank canvas of the face of the actor.

I’m not sure if this is ‘real’ footage of the Kuleshov effect but here’s a Youtube link to give you the gist of the experiment – I can’t honestly say that this seems to have much impact on me but then I now know what I’m looking out for and I’m more intrigued by the early 20th century idea of a matineé  idol, who to my 21st century ideas looks down right weird! But I know from my own experience that without a doubt we are influenced by what supports and surrounds the main image and, as ever, our brains simply fill in the blanks and make connections based on our past experience.

According to a web site I stumbled over about Stanley Kubrick and the Kuleshov effect, Kubrick was a great exponent of the technique and ‘HAL’ the famous computer, monotone and faceless form ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ is again used as a blank canvas on which we project our own feelings giving a personality and range of emotion which are not really there…creepy.

So be careful when watching the news and keep an eye out for politicians kissing babies or surrounding themselves with other positive images for that matter, they only hoping that some of that ‘ahhhhh cute’ reaction will influence you! And don’t believe your eyes – except when you see a bus!

The map is not the territory

As we’ve already begun to discover from previous posts we don’t so much see as perceive. Our eyes and brain don’t function like a camera; light falling on our retina is only the beginning of a much greater mental journey. What we think we see is constructed within our brains and subject to may factors from expectation, emotional state and personal experience to our culture and beyond (we’ll investigate the impact of some of these things as this blog grows).

We’ve been taking on board visual messages since the first simple creatures floating in the seas could distinguish between dark and light, blue and yellow light. We’ve had a few billion years of evolution to get pretty good at this seeing lark, and now, here we are as humans, adept at reading complex visual signs from facial expressions to highly abstract symbols like road signs and everything in between. We take these skills very much for granted but not only are we informed by our eyes we’re also tricked on a regular basis.

So why does that happen?

Consider for a moment having to process data as though it were fresh to you every single time, here’s my try (no prizes for guessing what I’m describing): What’s this object? I’m sure I’ve seen one before somewhere. It’s about the size of my fist and it’s sort of shaped like a stone, there’s no edges to it. It’s quite smooth and shiny like a stone too but not as heavy so it’s definitely not a stone . Now what colour is it – it’s not like the sky, it’s much more like grass. Can I eat it? Blah blah blah…..arrrrrrrrgh! We’d starve!

And just imagine the trouble you’d get in to if you were out on the savannah looking at a lion and trying to do that process  – we’d never have made it this far as a species!  Simply for our survival our brains have to work outside of our awareness and flag up to our conscious processing only what we need to deal with or are concentrating on. Interestingly we can even pay attention to something without even knowing it’s there as Po-Jang Hsieh (Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore and MIT) and his colleagues Jaron T. Colas and Nancy Kanwisher of MIT discuss in their research:

As our visual system is developed to interpret a three-dimensional world, two-dimensional images can cause us all sorts of difficulties for our processing. Our experiences help us develop a map, a ready reference, and our brain busily looks for patterns that we’ve come across before and then fills in holes with a best guess. Take perspective used by artists – that is purely a bit of visual trickery. The trompe-l’œil creations of the street artist Julian Beever are great for seeing this at work and optical illusions can clearly show our short comings. There’s loads out there on the web – here’s a randomly selected link to a few: James Figur...

In 2D representations our brains are having to fill in a lot of gaps, images are only patches of light, shade and colour and experience is required to be able to interpret them. Has anyone seen the Father Ted episode where Ted is trying to explain to Dougal that the plastic cows are small but the real cows are far away? If you need a good laugh you can find it here:

English: Kanizsa triangle. Español: Triángulo ...
Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a classic illusion, the Kanizsa triangle – you just can’t help but see a triangle in the foreground now can you!

Our vision is best adapted for looking for change in our environment, particularly rapid change such as movement. Anyone who has switched a TV on with the sound off and still found their attention wandering towards the screen will understand this phenomenon
(And I blame the same phenomenon for our kids insatiable appetite for moving images on our TV and computer screens).

Take a look at this illusion – called a peripheral drift illusion, as the name suggests it’s particularly effective if you look at it off to one side so it’s in your peripheral vision. Differences in luminance and contrast seem to have an important role to play, as do tiny movements of the eye called “saccades” – if you want the scientific explanation you can click the link above. Apparently genetics also have their part to play in how strongly we can see this image some of us will see more movement than others.

I promise you this image isn’t animated!!!! Feeling sick yet? This one really gets to me! ©shutterstock

When it comes to seeing images we have come to believe what we see is real – this is because this belief is reinforced by experience: we see a cup we pick it up and drink – Q.E.D. therefore it is real. And it’s the assumption that what we see is real that get us into big, big trouble! You may think you’re simply seeing a politician talking on TV but there’s lots more going on in that image than we bring into our consciousness and think about… but that’s for next time…

Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vin...

It’s been a manic month and finding the time to write a full post has eluded me! So instead, here is something I’ve seen this month that I really want to share with you. Grab a coffee, sit back and watch: “What makes a masterpiece”  – in which Channel 4’s art editor Matthew Cain explores the relationship between neuro-aesthetics and visual art, which seems very pertinent to this blog.

I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.

I believe, along with Matthew, that no matter what the critics may be telling you or whom the flavour of the month may currently be; that for art to be ‘good’ then it needs to touch me emotionally in some way.  So it is eye-opening to witness the effects of our culture over what we say we like (or possibly, even actually believe we like) when Matthew found himself tripped-up and rating Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist (above) highly, when in fact, his brain activity showed that he really wasn’t particularly moved by it! We’re back to the notion that expectation has a dramatic effect over our perceptions – see previous post “A question of Christmas taste” –  just like a wine’s price tag the message that this is by Leonardo means therefore I must like it better. I’m going to confess, that I’m with Matthew on that too, and I can’t honestly say it does much for me either, though I can appreciate the skill involved in creating it.

In homage to Matthew experiment of creating ‘art’ based on scientific ideas I’ve tried it here myself and used the same principles:
• blue – the most liked colour
• contrast – to giving depth and cause the eye to move around and explore
• grouping – finding the shape within pattern
• puzzle solving  – the pleasure of the ah-ha moment or “can you see what is yet?”

Definitely not great art but I’m curious to know; do you like it or at least elements of it???????

Experiment or art?

A question of (Christmas) taste!

As you fight the scrum in the shops and gaze longingly at all those beautifully packaged products remind your brain that all is not as it appears! Consumer packaging has been market tested for donkeys’ years and for good reason…it exerts a mystical power over us in the persuasion stakes.

Did you know that even the colour of a pack can have a remarkable effect over the taste of the contents…yes the taste — really, it’s true I tell you!

In his book “Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell talks to marketing guru Louis Cheskin a man with many, many years experience of testing products and packaging. They discuss various examples from margarine to brandy but the one that caught my attention was the 7up can as it demonstrates how colour has a dramatic effect on our thinking even when the shifts are subtle. They tested a can where 15% more yellow was added to the standard green (15 % isn’t a great deal – here’s an example, wont be very accurate on-screen but gives the idea).

The square on the right has 15% more yellow than the one on the left.

The response from consumers was remarkable with participants saying it now tasted more strongly of lemon or lime and getting quite upset that the company were messing with their 7up! In fact there had been absolutely NO change to the content  –  it was all in the mind.

The old adage  – “you get what you pay for” is also one that can really skew our thinking. In a study in 2008 by Baba Shiva and his team at Stanford University, participants were given what they believed to be 5 red wines to taste – in fact there were only 3 and two were given twice. The only other piece of information they were given was the price of each – prices which were made up by the researchers! Whilst in an fMRI machine the wines were tasted and the brains of the subjects scanned. Shiva noted that not only did respondents say they could taste the difference between 5 wines (rather than the reality of just 3) they also noted that the wines alleged to be more expensive tasted better! The researchers found that an increase in the perceived price of a wine lead directly to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (responsible for analytical thought) in the region that experiences pleasure (the medial orbitofrontal cortex, or mOFC) because of an associated increase in taste expectation. Marketeers take note!

This is all very closely related to the placebo effect — tell someone it will do them good and it will because our expectations govern our experience.

What happens when we don’t have that superfluous information to deal with? Well, the other night I was watching a SuperScrimpers Christmas on Channel 4 (it is, after all, very much in vogue to have a frugal Xmas). And thought I’d share with you that a £3 Christmas pud from a well-known budget supermarket (beginning with A and ending in A) won hands down in a “blind” taste test over all its supposedly posher cousins. The blind test means all the extra information is stripped away and the differences in packaging and price become irrelevant and only our basic emotional brains can get to work. Our emotional brain knows only too well what tastes best! Which is why blind taste tests are the only ones to believe.

So keep that in mind — rely on the blind taste test and your emotional brain and don’t over over excite your supposedly logical prefrontal cortex.

All that remains now if for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas before I dash off to decant my cheap plonk and hide the wrapper for my Christmas pudding!!

Look into my eyes

I read somewhere years ago that it’s virtually impossible to ignore an advert or design with a face, or more precisely eyes, on it and this seems to be very much the case – we just can’t help but try and make eye contact even if it is only symbolic. Our mind gets important information for face recognition primarily from the eye area and secondly from the mouth and nose so to seek out the eyes, even in a printed advert, is quite natural.

There’s a fascinating service available from 3M, the Visual Attention Service which predicts the visual impact of designs, ads etc in the first few seconds of observation. I have been having some fun playing around with it  – pop a design with a face into that and just watch the hot spots and attention areas light up!

We are great at seeing faces everywhere and anywhere from in the clouds to burned onto slices of toast but if it’s alive or not is another matter and it seems to be that the eyes really are the window of the soul – or rather of the life and soul.

A study published in Psychological Science found that a face has to be very close to a human face in order to appear alive and that the eyes are the key to that life. (Which may account for why some computer animations seem really freaky – or is that just me?)

Researchers at Dartmouth College, asked volunteers to study images on a continuum from the face of a doll, merged in stages, through to a similar human face. It was well towards the human end of the spectrum, about two-thirds of the way along, before the respondents thought the face was real. And in another experiment the researchers found that it was the eyes that were the most important feature for figuring that out.

“I think we all seek connections with others,” said Thalia Wheatley who wrote the study with Christine Looser. “When we recognize life in a face, she says, we think, “This is a mind I can connect with.”

Maybe this seeking connection is why we are so drawn to look at eyes and why we find them such an important and impactful feature.

A baby’s eyes are very large in comparison with its head, so large eyes suggest to us infant characteristics and that will induce in us feelings of nurturing and protection – hence large eyes seem so attractive.  Because of that proportional relationship big eyes also suggest youth  –  someone with big eyes is seen as younger then they really are. (I always make eyes larger in portraits!)

They don’t even have to be human to work their magic – just think of all those big eyed baby animals which make us go “ahhhhh” and that’s also the appeal of “Manga” style cartoon characters our kids seem to crave more and more of. Even products can exhibit this appeal, most of us think of the VW Beetle with it’s big headlights as cute.

Even though we may look to the eyes to find life, it seems that they don’t have to be real for us to feel the impact of being watched. Amazingly we are still influenced by the idea that someone is looking at what we’re up to even when there is no one actually there – we really are such a paranoid bunch!

Last year, Researchers at Newcastle University published the findings of a study where they had alternated putting up posters of staring eyes and of flowers on the walls of a cafe. They then watched the frequency of people clearing up after their meals. When the posters with the eyes were put up twice as many people tidied up, compared with when the flowers were on the walls.

Back in 2006 the same scientists looked at the impact of images of eyes on contributions to an honesty box in a tea room. They found that people put nearly three times more money in the box when there were eyes compared with the flowers.

Dr Bateson, who led the research, said “We care what other people think about us, and hence we behave better when we feel we are being observed.”

Seems that the Ancient Egyptians did know a thing or two and were on to something with the Eye of Horos, the all seeing eye as a symbol of protection!

What Makes a Face Look Alive? Study Says It’s in the Eyes
Newcastle University – Eye see you
Eye of Horos Image

On the face of it

As social creatures we need to recognise each other and our mind can perform some astounding feats when it comes to recognising faces. If you saw QI a couple of weeks ago then you will have seen the splendid Einsteins face illusion which demonstrates this quite clearly. (You can watch it again here)

We recognise faces with ease – from any angle – even if someone has changed something about their appearance like their hair. According to scientists we use internal 2-D snapshots from our eyes to build and store a 3-D mental representation of the face, which is resilient to such changes. We’ve all had those embarrassing moments when we’ve not noticed a friends new hair-do so maybe that explains why! This is a totally automatic process and happens out of our awareness but is problematic for those with a condition called prosopagnosia which causes a kind of face blindness and affects the ability to recognise faces.*

We are so hard wired to recognise faces that we can see them anywhere – you only have to look up in to the clouds or peer into the shadows to start seeing faces for yourself. And we still understand them even when they are disjointed. This was famously demonstrated by the “Thatcher effect” illusion by Peter Thompson, (1980) when he kept the mouth and eyes the right way up in the otherwise rotated face of the then PM.

You can see it and rotate it here.

I have had to draw a few faces in my time and often turn them upside down to get a different perspective but what’s so weird, is that with a normal drawing I don’t get the strange feeling of something clicking in my head, that I do when rotating this illusion.
It’s a very odd feeling – use the link above and gradually rotate it and you’ll see for yourself.

As with so much to do with brain function it may take a while before the scientists can tell us exactly how this illusion works but for now there are several theories and if your interested there’s a list of them on the “Bang Goes the Theory” site. Apparently People with prosopagnosia  pick up more quickly on this illusion than the rest of us so it must therefore have some connection to this 2D to 3D processing ability.

Our brain gets important information for face recognition primarily from around the eyes and secondly from the mouth and nose which I think is one of the reason why the illusion works – because the most important features remain the correct way up and it only looks strange when they are inverted.

Thought I’d try out the look on our current PM…..

Thatcherised Cameron - Image on the left has been 'Thatcherised'
Same two images turned the correct way up!

*Read the full article: Brain Needs to Remember Faces in Three Dimensions
David Cameron image from Wikipedia, image manipulation by me.

The apple of our eye

I couldn’t let today pass without mention of the sad death of Steve Jobs co-founder of Apple. An inspiring, innovative and passionate leader. And a man that understood only too well the connection between what something looks and feels like with our perceptions and desires.

When Alex Riley explored the world of the Secrets of the Superbrands back in May this year he found that Apple has literally become a religion (well almost). When neuroscientists used an MRI scanner to examine the head of an Apple fan they found areas of the brain light up that are usually do for religious imagery in people of faith.

OK, so maybe this isn’t limited to Apple – our brains are good at liking things and you’d probably get the same kind of illumination for fans of all kinds but it’s fascinating none the less that Apple can bring about this intensity of feeling.

Apple has an amazing ability to understand and market to us mere mortals. Know those crazy white headphones (showing my age here — think the proper term may be earbuds) for the i-pod? Well, far from being the impractical, dirt collecting colour they may at first seem, making them white was actually a stroke of well thought through genius. Because white makes them visible. *

Given our only too human nature of wanting to copy each other, we can’t copy what we can’t see. And those tiny little i-pods hidden in a bag or pocket simply aren’t visible. The more we see something the more we grow to like it – so it makes huge sense to make the only visible bit that bit more visible.

Remember those first i-pod ads with silhouettes of dancing figures – what else could you see? Yes, those white headphones and wires. Those wires became an intrinsic part of the brand imagery. Genius!

* Can’t remember where I read this off hand but I’ll find out and post it up as soon as poss.

Hey good looking!

We all know that the world of consumer product packaging has been tried and tested for its effects on us for years (post to come soon “A question of taste”). And the Design Business Association (DBA) is a great resource promoting the powerful business case for the use of design in many areas (see their Design Effectiveness Awards case studies for some astonishing results on the bottom line

But now here’s a bit of research which adds fuel to that fire from a different world – the world of finance – and shows that even experienced financial investors, those we may consider as analytical and hard-headed are just as human as the rest of us  and are swayed by good looks!

According to researchers from the School of Business Administration at the University of Miami a good looking annual report has a profound effect on how viewers rates the value of the company – placing a higher value on firms with attractive reports. Even though the respondents has said that they thought the design of a companies’ report would be of little importance in their valuation.

The researchers conducted a series of three studies; one with financial students, one with the general public and one with experienced investors. In the study with the experienced investors respondents were asked to rank organisations based on how likely they would be to want to invest in these firms. Interestingly the addition of an extra colour in the annual report seems to have the same impact on the companies ranking as a 20% improvement in revenue from the previous year!

“Better-looking documents produce increased pride of ownership for a company, and this pride increases valuation. People are not aware of the effect of aesthetics on their financial decisions and we found that when their attention was drawn to this issue they were able to overcome the bias and make wiser investments.” said Claudia Townsend, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, who conducted the research with Suzanne Shu of the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

So if you’re about to produce an annual report you’d better dash out and find yourself a decent designer. Seems that the investment in good looks is ultimately worth while!

Read the full report:
University of Miami. “Handsome annual reports cause investors to value company higher.” ScienceDaily, 23 Aug. 2011. Web. 13 Sep. 2011.