Blind to Change

“… change blindness: the frequent inability of our visual system to detect alterations to something staring us straight in the face.”

This line is taken from an article on April 1st, 2008 by Natalie Angier in the NY Times called Blind to Change, Even as It Stares Us in the Face. The article’s focus is mainly on how the brain sees the world. Ellsworth Kelly’s “Study for Colors for a Large Wall” is a perfect example. When an audience was exposed to the painting everyone absorbed the piece of art. But when the piece was taken away and the audience was asked to view another slightly modified version of it, the audience couldn’t be sure what was different. It as if the audience took it in as a whole, but the specifics were less memorable. The brain takes steps to prioritize the amount of information coming. Here are two sections from the article that encompass what the brain does:

The mechanisms that succeed in seizing our sightline fall into two basic classes: bottom up and top down. Bottom-up attentiveness originates with the stimulus, with something in our visual field that is the optical equivalent of a shout: a wildly waving hand, a bright red object against a green field. Bottom-up stimuli seem to head straight for the brainstem and are almost impossible to ignore, said Nancy Kanwisher, a vision researcher at M.I.T., and thus they are popular in Internet ads.

Top-down attentiveness, by comparison, is a volitional act, the decision by the viewer that an item, even in the absence of flapping parts or strobe lights, is nonetheless a sight to behold. When you are looking for a specific object — say, your black suitcase on a moving baggage carousel occupied largely by black suitcases — you apply a top-down approach, the bouncing searchlights configured to specific parameters, like a smallish, scuffed black suitcase with one broken wheel. Volitional attentiveness is much trickier to study than is a simple response to a stimulus…

I see a parallel to the US economy. The average US citizen probably believes that either the Federal Reserve or those in Congress, or both act in a manner consistent with the second item above. They have an idea before hand of what things should look like and they focus on it to make it happen. Unfortunately, what seems to happen is the first item – they need a red flag to rise before noticing a problem. The US economy in 2007 had several clues popping up that if someone was looking for would have possibly changed the situation we are currently in. Here are a few: oil prices rising, borrowing up, long term unemployment up, middle class wage increases leveling off, and consumer buying had shifted from steaks to hamburger. I’m not advocating something that could resemble overreacting to any of these clues, but there should be small adjustments planned for when any of these items falters in the early stages. That doesn’t happen. Instead we get stimulus packages that help, but don’t do much in the long term.


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