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Remember trying to spot the subtle differences between pictures as a child? It kept us quiet for hours! Neuroscientists including Chrystalina Antoniades have been working with staff at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum on some interesting ‘spot the difference’ experiments, to try and find out more about how we perceive things.

In particular, they’ve been looking at whether our perception operates differently when we are looking at a screen, from when we are looking at actual objects in our environment. You might think that it’s easier to spot differences in the real world than it is on screen, and there is some evidence that binocular vision (using both eyes to look at real 3D objects) is better than monocular vision (which is what we use when we look at representations on a 2D screen).

It turns out that in this experiment, the phenomenon of ‘change blindness’ - essentially when we can’t spot the difference - occurs both when looking at images on screen and at objects in the real world. Change blindness occurs when a small change in what we are looking at (e.g. in a film of a Chinese porcelain bowl) is obscured by us blinking, or the screen flickering, for example. This sort of inability to ‘spot the difference’ is interesting, because it’s not about lack of attention, given that the people in the experiment were actively engaged in looking at the objects very carefully.

Indeed, this was why the researchers chose to carry out this experiment in a museum, since it could be argued that in this sort of setting, people are more than usually focused on the things they are looking at. The team chose pairs of artefacts including Japanese woodblock prints, Iranian tiles and bronze medals, all of which had been designed to appear identical, but due to the passage of time now exhibited several small differences for example in colour. They set up the real-world and on-screen viewing situations with very exact conditions and specific instructions for the participants regarding how they were to observe the objects.

As well as finding that change blindness did occur in a museum setting, and that there were no statistically significant differences between the degree of change blindness when looking at actual objects or objects on screen, the study also revealed that certain objects were more likely to lead to the experience of change blindness. The researchers found that these objects had a greater variation in colour, or larger areas of each object were different.

While there are obvious limitations to this experiment, and the interpretation of all its findings is not straightforward, it adds to the body of knowledge about how we perceive the (increasingly virtual) world around us. The scientists hope to continue to work with the Museum staff to build on this work in the future. 

Read the journal article