- Psychology's Ron Rensink Discovers Visual Sensing Without
- Most of us have felt it before -- that sinking feeling
that something is about to happen, that something is not quite right. It's
the stuff of scary movies, X-Files episodes and psychic visits.
- But according to a new study by Ron Rensink, an associate
professor in both psychology and computer science at UBC, the "sixth
sense" is a distinct mode of visual perception and may be something
all of us can learn to employ.
- He calls it "mindsight" -- the phenomenon where
people can sense a change but do not see it (i.e. have a visual experience
of it) for several seconds.
- "There is something there -- people do have access
to this other subsystem," says Rensink, whose findings appear in the
January issue of Psychological Science.
- "Vision is not just one ability, it's not just one
sense. There is vision for conscious perception -- this picture you have
of what's going on -- and there is also vision for action. It turns out
these are two very different subsystems -- one of them is conscious, one
of them is non-conscious -- and they actually work slightly differently.
That's why when you're driving, for example, you can actually tune out
and you can drive just fine because this other system takes over."
- In a preliminary experiment initially designed to test
attention, Rensink presented participants with a photograph of a real-world
scene and a modified photograph in a sequence, with a brief gray field
between successive images. Participants were asked to hit a button when
they saw a change.
- But some participants asked if they should hit the button
when they actually saw the change -- or when they first felt something
- Intrigued, Rensink re-jigged the experiment. Forty participants
were instead asked to hit a button once when they sensed a change -- that
is, had a "feeling" that a change was occurring - and a second
time when they actually saw the change.
- Most participants only saw the change. But some sensed
a change two or three seconds before they actually saw it.
- "About a third of people seem to get this feeling
of something happening, of something changing," says Rensink. "You
can't really say what it is, you can't really say when it is. It's just
a gut feeling... It's clear whatever it is, they're using it in their everyday
- A noted vision researcher, Rensink spent six years at
Cambridge Basic Research, a partnership involving the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, Harvard and Nissan Motor Co. Prompted in part by a finding
that accidents in city driving were often classified as "driver looked
but failed to see," he initially studied "change blindness"
(people's blindness to scene changes) and later conducted the experiments
that were part of the mindsight findings.
- "In the past, people believed that if light came
into your eyes, it would have to result in a picture. If it didn't result
in a picture, it must mean that it can't be vision.
- "What I'm saying is no, that first assumption is
wrong. Light can come into your eyes and do other things. There are other
perceptual systems and it can result in other forms of experience. It's
all vision -- it's just a different kind of vision. There is nothing really
magical about it. It's just a different way of perceiving, so it's a different
kind of experience, which I think is actually pretty cool. This is not
- But it is controversial.
- "It's not going to make everybody happy," he
says matter-of-factly of findings that took more than two years -- and
significant verification -- to publish.
- "A lot of people feel kind of threatened by this,
by the idea that the conscious mind is not necessarily the ultimate in
terms of intelligence or control. If you think that the conscious mind
is the end-all and be-all, this kind of work is disturbing."
- Rensink says people need to trust their gut instincts
and believes we can likely train ourselves to hone them.
- "In the longer run, it's worth taking a look at
intuition to get more insight into this area," he says. "Maybe
this will tend to lead people to develop their intuitions and realize that
these intuitions are informative and we should respect them. This may help
us in all kinds of endeavours."
- In practical terms, Rensink, who is part of a team of
UBC researchers investigating the possibilities of intelligent human-automobile
interfaces, says if one can actually induce this gut feeling, scientists
may be able to use it in cars as a kind of warning.
- "What you'd like is a way to say, Îslow down,
or dangerous curve ahead.' If you're getting a feeling that something is
not quite right, this may in fact get people to be more cautious."
- He also thinks it could be applied to the arts, used
deliberately, for example, in the cinema to give the audience an even "spookier
- Rensink plans further analysis to determine what may
separate people who have this sense from people who don't. Is it a personality
variable? Is it attitude or mental set? And what part of the brain is responsible?
- "If people are capable of this, they are probably
capable of a lot more," he says. "We just don't know yet. We'll
see where it leads us in the future. It could be the start of something
interesting -- a whole other way of using vision."
- Information www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/ubcreports/2004/04jan08/mindsight.html