Experience Influences How You See the World

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Your experience has a palpable influence on how you see the world in a very literal sense, according to new research from Johns Hopkins.

In order to study how people visually process information, a group of cognitive scientists at Hopkins performed an experiment on two sets of subjects: one group that spoke Arabic and another that was unfamiliar with the language. The researchers showed both groups thousands of pairs of Arabic letters, asking them to quickly say whether or not the two letters were the same. You might think that speaking Arabic wouldn’t have much of an influence on people’s ability to say whether two shapes are the same or different–but it turns out to be more complicated than that. Those who were familiar with Arabic letters were able to more accurately distinguish between them, while the novices were more quick in their assessments, as long as the letter shapes were simple. The researchers theorize that experts got tripped up by their knowledge of extraneous information (how the letter is pronounced, for example).

Study lead author Robert W. Wiley thinks the implications of the study might help us better understand how we see the world–beyond alphabets. Most notably, the findings seem to indicate that your experience shades how you process even basic visual information. “What we find should hold true for any sort of object—cars, birds, faces. Expertise matters. It changes how you perceive things,” Wiley told the Hopkins Hub. “Part of being an expert is learning what matters and what doesn’t matter—including visual features. You know what to look for.”


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