Association for Behavior Analysis International

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I Looked But I Did Not See: The Science of Missing What is Right in Front of Your Eyes

Jeremy Wolfe (Brigham and Women's Hospital / Harvard Med School)

B. F. Skinner Lecture Series Paper




Jeremy Wolfe is Professor of Ophthalmology and Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School. He is Director of the Visual Attention Lab at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Wolfe received an AB in Psychology in 1977 from Princeton and his PhD in Psychology in 1981 from MIT. His research focuses on visual search and visual attention with a particular interest in socially important search tasks in areas such as medical image perception (e.g. cancer screening), security (e.g. baggage screening), and intelligence. His lab has been funded since 1982 by NIH (NEI, NIMH, NCI), NSF, AFOSR (Air Force), ONR (Navy), ARO (Army), Homeland Security, and the Nat. Geospatial Agency as well as by IBM, Google, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, & GE. Wolfe taught Intro. Psychology and other courses for 25 years, mostly at MIT. Leadership: Past President or Chair: Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS), Psychonomic Soc, APA Division 3, Eastern Psychological Assoc, NAS Panel on Soldier Systems. Boards: Vision Sciences Society, APA Div 1, 6. Founding Editor-in-Chief of Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (CRPI). Past-Editor of Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics. Wolfe also serves on the Oversight Committee of the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism. He was elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019.



"Looked but failed to see" errors are a real-world problem with psychological roots. When someone hits a pedestrian in the crosswalk or misses a tumor in a mammogram, it is often clear that the critical stimulus was clearly visible. It may be clear that it was fixated by the eyes. Why, then, did the driver or the radiologist fail to respond appropriately? The answers are found in fundamental limits on human perception and cognition. We cannot simultaneously recognize every object in our field of view. As a result, we deploy attention from object to object or place to place, searching for what we need. This is true whether we are watching a movie or driving downtown. Fortunately, we do not need to search at random. Our attention is guided by the features of the targets we seek and by the structure of the scenes in which those targets are embedded. Unfortunately, our search engine does not work perfectly and so our eyes can be pointed at or near an item of interest and we can fail to recognize its presence. When those missed targets are such things as tumors or bombs, these errors are socially significant. The problem is worth understanding and, if possible, worth correcting. In this talk, I will illustrate some of the basic principles of human visual attention and I can promise that you will fail to see some things that you would think you should have seen.


Modifed by Eddie Soh