MADISON, Wis. It is natural to imagine that the sense of sight takes in the world as it is simply passing on what the eyes collect from light reflected by the objects around us.
But the eyes do not work alone. What we see is a function not only of incoming visual information, but also how that information is interpreted in light of other visual experiences, and may even be influenced by language.
Words can play a powerful role in what we see, according to a study published this month by University of WisconsinMadison cognitive scientist and psychology professor Gary Lupyan, and Emily Ward, a Yale University graduate student, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Perceptual systems do the best they can with inherently ambiguous inputs by putting them in context of what we know, what we expect," Lupyan says. "Studies like this are helping us show that language is a powerful tool for shaping perceptual systems, acting as a top-down signal to perceptual processes. In the case of vision, what we consciously perceive seems to be deeply shaped by our knowledge and expectations."
And those expectations can be altered with a single word.
To show how deeply words can influence perception, Lupyan and Ward used a technique called continuous flash suppression to render a series of objects invisible for a group of volunteers.
Each person was shown a picture of a familiar object such as a chair, a pumpkin or a kangaroo in one eye. At the same time, their other eye saw a series of flashing, "squiggly" lines.
"Essentially, it's visual noise," Lupyan says. "Because the noise patterns are high-contrast and constantly moving, they dominate, and the input from the other eye is suppressed."
Immediately before looking at the combination of the flashing lines and suppressed object, the study participants heard one of three things: the word for the suppressed object ("pumpkin
|Contact: Gary Lupyan|
University of Wisconsin-Madison