How Our Brain Finds Waldo

At Enquiro, we did some interesting work in 2009 with visual attention and engagement with ads. We found, for example, that attention significantly impacts how we see ads and retain the messages shown within them. We also found that brands can play a vital role in this process. Over the Christmas holiday, I found a number of neurological studies that start to shed some light on how we might visually process information on websites and the role advertising might play. This week, I’ll be breaking them into individual elements and exploring them a little more fully, showing the practical applications for advertisers and web designers. Much of this was also covered in my book, The BuyerSphere Project.

Today, let’s spend some time finding Waldo

The “Where’s Waldo” Neuronal Choir

whereswaldoHow much mileage can you get from creating exercises in visual attention. Well, if you’re Martin Hanford, the answer is: a lot! Hanford created the phenomenally popular “Where’s Waldo?” set of books. At last count, Hanford’s playful take on visual attention had produced a couple dozen books, video games, an animated series and even a potential movie deal. And it all comes down to the same basic premise: how long does it take us to find one distinct element in a visually busy environment? How do our eyes pick Waldo out of a visually dense picture, packed with details and optical red herrings?

That was the question researcher Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience at MIT decided to tackle. Specifically, he wanted to explore two differing schools of thought:

Do we move our attention around the page like a spotlight, physically scanning the environment inch by inch looking for Waldo, the intended target of our attention; or,

Do we scan the image as a whole, looking for clues in the overall pattern about where Waldo might be?

The answer appears to be both. And the reason both systems are active come from our evolutionary past. We need to focus attention on the task at hand, but we also need to scan the environment for signals of something that might suddenly need our attention. And the way the brain does this is fascinating. It does it by literally creating a choir of neurons, all firing in a synchronized pattern. It seems to be this synchronization that represents the focusing of attention.

Picking Waldo Out of the Crowd

Let’s go back to Waldo. Neurons tend to have specialized functions. We have neurons that are better at picking out colors, neurons that a better a picking out the edges of shapes and other neurons that pick out patterns. In the case of Waldo, before we ever start scanning the page, we recruit the neurons that are best suited to recognized the distinct image of Waldo. For example, because Waldo is dressed in red, we recruit the red neurons. We create a picture of Waldo in our “mind’s eye.”

So, we have our handpicked neuronal “swat team” ready to intercept Waldo. But, how do we actually find Waldo? This is where the two mechanisms of the brain work in unison. In eye tracking, you soon learn the difference between foveal attention and peripheral attention. Foveal attention is where the brain focuses our eyes, allowing us to pick up fine detail. When we read, for example, we use foveal focus to pick up the shape of the letters and interpret them. Eye tracking only picks up foveal attention. This represents the “spotlight” function of attention.

But the brain has to tell the eyes where to move next. And to do this, it relies on peripheral attention. This is what we see out of the “corner of our eye”. Peripheral attention allows us to scan a much broader field of vision to determine if there are elements in it that merit the refocusing of foveal attention. Peripheral vision is particularly tuned to movements and coarser visual cues. This has significant impact on the effectiveness of advertising, which I’ll talk about in a future post. For today, it’s sufficient to understand that peripheral vision allows us to scan our environment in a repeating “quick and dirty” pattern.

Now, our neuronal swat team has identified the target pattern for us. This image has been implanted in our prefrontal cortex as a “top down” imperative, a directive to our visual cortex. And, through peripheral vision, we’re scanning the entire picture to find possible matches. To help separate the most promising areas of the picture from the background noise of the other detail, it appears that an area of the prefrontal cortex, the FEF, orchestrates our hand picked neurons to synchronize their firing. This synchrony helps the signals from this group of neurons stand out from the noise of the rest. It works just like the the synchronized dancing in these examples of flash mobs –  the Sound of Music in an Antwerp train station, a Glee medley in a Roman piazza and the Black Eyed Peas surprising Oprah.

Sound of Music | Central Station Antwerp (Belgium)
GLEE – Il FlashMob
Black Eyed Peas – I got a feeling on Oprah Chicago Flashmob

Just like the dancers in these Flash Mobs- the synchronization helps our “Waldo” neurons stand out from the crowd, raising above the noise. As we scan the image through the periphery of our visual focus, the FEF orchestrates the neural synchrony of our group of “Waldo” neurons, drawing the spotlight of foveal attention to the parts of the picture most likely to contain Waldo. There, we switch to a more detailed scanning to determine if Waldo is indeed present.

Tomorrow, we’ll use the same basic theory to talk about what happens when we first visit a website.

If you want to find out more about Dr Desimone’s work, read these two articles:

Long-Distance Brain Waves Focus Attention

Research Explains How The Brain Finds Waldo

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