Creativity Language Neuroscience Visual Perception

Why our children see more than we do

Like the characters in C.S Lewis’ Chroncles of Narnia, research indicates that smaller children experience many things which adults can no longer see…


From the Wild Lands in the North, to the Great Deserts in the South, and the Majestic River of Telmar in the West, to the High Castle of Cair Paravel in the East, the land of Narnia is an extraordinary region populated by centaurs, dragons, talking animals and all manner of wonders which no adult human may ever see.

And although no adult may set foot in the land of Narnia, children, may enter into it through the famous wardrobe… as Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter famously discover in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

But they can do this only as long as they remain children.

It is with sadness that we see first Susan and Peter, then Edmund, and Lucy each learn that, beyond a certain age, they will never be able to return to Narnia.

This narrative of expulsion from paradise is as old as the story of the Garden of Eden, or the myth of “The Golden Age.”

Indeed, most adults, at some level would feel that the adult world somehow lacks the magic, the wonder and the sheer sense of possibility they once experienced as children.

We tend to see the cultural acclimatisation and education of our children as a process of opening their minds to more and more knowledge.

However, recent developments in neuroscience suggest that the opposite is in fact the case.

Because, extraordinary as it may seem, it is now clear that our awareness of the world around us, rather than expanding, in certain key areas, actually diminishes, as we grow older, and we become more socially acclimatised to the needs of our own particular tribe or social grouping.

Because, whilst education and the development of the social brain enable us to find our niche in society, this process is often at the expense of significant cognitive abilities.

To put it bluntly: we become blinded to anything other than that which our mother culture defines as reality.

We are each of us, born with around 100 billion neurons in our brains… to imagine how enormous this is, just think that this is about the same as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

And in a child’s first years of life, the brain is constantly being sculpted by its cultural surroundings, as it refines its circuits in response to environmental experiences.

Since brain circuits organize and reorganize themselves in response to an infant’s interactions with his or her environment, the synapses—the points where neurons connect—are either built and strengthened, or weakened and pruned away as needed (This process is often catchily described as “the neurons that fire together wire together”.)

In her 2011 TED talk, “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” Kuhl describes this process as babies going from being “citizens of the world,” to becoming “language-bound” members of their own tribal grouping.

Patricia K. Kuhl is a Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. She specializes in language acquisition and the neural bases of language. Using magneto encephalography (MEG, a relatively new technology that measures magnetic fields generated by the activity of brain cells) Kuhl has, for the first time in human history, been able to show just how babies acquire language.

All spoken languages consist of basic units of sound, called phonemes, these phonemes combine together to form syllables. For example, in English, the consonant sound “t” and the vowel sound “o” are both phonemes that combine to form the syllable “to” as in “tomato”.

In total there are more than 200 phonemes, representing all the sounds that the human voice can create. But most languages use only a fraction of this number. In some languages it can be as few as 15, whilst in English it is over 40.

Patricia K. Kuhl discovered that before 8 months of age, the neurons in a baby’s brain could recognise the phonemes of any language on the planet.

After this point, they quickly learn to ignore the vast majority of phonemes and concentrate only on those used in their native language. And within a few months they have lost this ability altogether.

In her 2011 TED talk, “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” Kuhl describes this process as babies going from being “citizens of the world,” to becoming “language-bound” members of their own tribal grouping.

(Intriguingly, similar tests done on adults show that these neurons continue to fire in recognition of all 200 phonemes, when presented with any “foreign” language. However this information is no longer processed consciously. So the listener is not aware that they can “hear” them.)

Similarly, in the visual domain, it has been shown that very young babies have cognitive abilities that become lost as they begin to grow into their culturally acclimatized selves.

According to a study led by Olivier Pascalis, a psychologist at England’s University of Sheffield, human babies start out with the ability to recognize a wide range of faces, even among races or species different from their own.

The study focused on the ability to recognize and categorize faces, determine identity and gender, and read emotions. The findings suggest that, in humans, whether or not you have this ability, is a question of “use it or lose it.”

Michelle de Haan, one of the study's authors, said: "We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age. This is probably a reflection of the brain's 'tuning in' to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful."
Michelle de Haan, one of the study’s authors, said: “We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age.This is probably a reflection of the brain’s ‘tuning in’ to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful.”

In the study six-month-old infants were able to recognize the faces of individuals of either different races or even different species—in this case, monkeys. Something, which most adults cannot do.

Babies who received specific visual training retained the ability. But those with no training lost the skill altogether by the time they were nine months old.

This is because by the time they’re nine months old, face recognition is based on a much narrower model, one that is based on the faces they see most often.

This more specialized view, in turn, diminishes our early ability to make distinctions among other species, and other races. For instance, if an infant is exposed to mainly Asian faces, he or she will grow to become less skilled at discerning among different, say, Caucasian faces.

Michelle de Haan, one of the study’s authors, said: “We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age.

“This is probably a reflection of the brain’s ‘tuning in’ to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful.”

Even if children were not to lose such cognitive abilities as they “tune in” to their contextual cultural norms, we also know that a large part of their cultural acclimatsation  would prevent them from expressing views that are at odds with the social groupings in which they find themselves.

Even when we see the world differently, our adult brains have all too often been wired to keep our thoughts to ourselves.

Research conducted by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College has clearly demonstrated the degree to which an individual’s own opinions will conform to those of the group in which he finds himself.

Whilst the Research conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale has shown how likely people are to obey authority figures even when their orders go against their own personal morality.

Perhaps this is why we love the ability of children to speak the truth. To say what we have all been thinking, even though it is not culturally acceptable.

After all it is the child who is not blinded by culture, who on seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”….

Language Narrative Visual Perception

Invisible gorillas, erotic dancers, and what lies beyond the visible spectrum.


Most people know about the spectrum of colours that can be seen with the naked eye, and that beyond this visible spectrum of colour, there are things that we cannot see, like infra-red, for example.

In recent years, however, it has become apparent that there are many things that we do not consciously see that can have profound effects on our behaviour. These are things that the unconscious mind sees “under the radar” of consciousness.

In 2004, two researchers from Harvard University, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for the experiment known as “The Invisible Gorilla.”

In this experiment, participants are shown a video, featuring two teams, one wearing white shirts, the other black. The teams are moving around in a circle, passing basketballs to one another. In order to occupy your attention, you are asked to count the number of passes made by the team wearing white.

Halfway through the video, someone wearing a full-body gorilla suit walks slowly to the middle of the screen, pounds their chest, and then walks out of the frame.

If you were to watch the video without being asked to count the passes, you would, of course, see the gorilla. But in tests, when people were asked to concentrate on the passes, about half the people did not see the gorilla at all.

Chabris and Simons call this phenomenon ‘inattentional blindness’. It occurs when you direct your attention like a mental spotlight on the basketball passes, because it is so focused on this activity, it leaves everything else in darkness. In this state, even when you look straight at the gorilla you won’t see it, because it’s simply not what you’re looking for.
That is not to say, however, that at some level your mind hasn’t registered it.

Our brains are physical systems and hence have finite ­resources. Compared to a computer chip, which is capable of processing billions of bits of information every second, our conscious brains (that part of our thinking in which we are aware of thinking) can only process a mere 40 bits of information per second.

Tor Nørretranders
Tor Nørretranders

In the “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size”, Tor Nørretranders has pointed out that our senses receive about 12 million bits of information every second. Of that 12 million bits of information, 10 million bits come from our eyes, 1 million bits come from our sense of touch, and the rest being delivered from all the other senses—hearing, smell, taste, and spatial sensations.

And, this is the important bit, because our conscious brains can only process at 40 bits per second, the remaining information is processed subconsciously.

That’s a ratio, of something like 99.999 percent subconscious processing, to 0.001 percent actual conscious thinking.

And this information we receive “under the radar” of consciousness would appear to have a powerful effect on behaviour.

According to research conducted by Professors Gavan Fitzsimons and Tanya Chartrand of Duke University, and Gráinne Fitzsimons of the University of Waterloo and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, in April, 2008, when people are subliminally exposed to either an IBM or an Apple logo, those exposed to the Apple logo behave in a more creative fashion than those who had been shown the IBM logo.

Gavan Fitzsimons explains: “Each of us is exposed to thousands of brand images every day, most of which are not related to paid advertising. We assume that incidental brand exposures do not affect us, but our work demonstrates that even fleeting glimpses of logos can affect us quite dramatically.”

To demonstrate the effects of brands on behavior, the researchers selected two household names, with contrasting and clearly defined brand characteristics. They asked the participants to complete what appeared to be a simple visual acuity task, during which either the Apple or IBM logo was flashed so quickly that they were completely unaware they had seen anything.

The participants were asked to then complete a task designed to evaluate how creative they were, by listing as many uses as possible for a brick other than the obvious such as building a wall. And those who were exposed to the Apple logo generated significantly more unexpected, oblique and creative uses for the brick compared with those who had “seen” the IBM logo.

As Gráinne Fitzsimons puts it: “This is the first clear evidence that subliminal brand exposures can cause people to act in very specific ways.”

But perhaps even more dramatic than the discovery that subliminal exposure to brands can affect behaviour, was the research published by a group of evolutionary psychologists from the University of New Mexico, in their 2007 paper “Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?”

What they discovered, in fact, was that lap dancers earnings vary in direct proportion to the stages of their ovulatory cycles.

So, on average, a lap dancer would earn $335 per evening during estrus, that part of their ovulatory cycle when they are most likely to conceive, $260 per evening during the couple of weeks that form the luteal phase, and only $185 per evening during menstruation. (By contrast, participants using contraceptive pills showed no estrous earnings peak.)

As the researchers describe it in their paper: “All participants in this study worked as lap dancers in Albuquerque “gentlemen’s clubs” circa November 2006 through January 2007. The clubs serve alcohol; they are fairly dark, smoky, and loud (with a DJ playing rock, rap, or pop music). Most club patrons are Anglo or Hispanic men aged 20 to 60, ranging from semiskilled laborers to professionals; they typically start the evening by getting a stack of US$20 bills from the club’s on-site ATM and having a couple of drinks.

The Dancers in these clubs perform topless but by law are required to wear a underwear or a thong of some sort. During the evening, each dancer performs on an elevated central stage to advertise her presence, attractiveness, and availability for lap dances. These dances result in only modest tip earnings (typically $1–5 tips from the men seated closest to the stage, and amounting to just 10% of her total earnings).

The rest of the time, she will walk around the club asking men if they want a “lap dance.” A lap dance typically costs $10 per 3-min song in the main club area or $20 in the more private VIP lounge. Lap dances require informal “tips” rather than having explicit “prices” (to avoid police charges of illegal “solicitation”), but the tipping is vigorously enforced by bouncers. Dancers thus maximize their earnings by providing as many lap dances as possible per shift.

The direct correlation between the tips earned, and the ovulatory status of these women, demonstrates that this information was clearly communicated to their customers through some form of non-verbal communication. And that this is perceived by the subconscious part of the brain that processes 12 million bits of information every second, rather than the conscious part that is chugging along at a mere 40 bits of information per second.

What both the Apple vs. IBM, and the lap dancers research clearly shows, is that in large part, our behaviours, are driven by experiences that we are not consciously aware of.

And, that the vast majority of these experiences are primarily visual.

And that, in a nutshell, is why, the traditional marketing practice of proposition testing doesn’t work.

It’s all a question of bandwidth. Consider this: we have seen that something like 99.999 percent of our perception is subconscious processing, and of that processing capability, 10 million bits out of 12 million bits per second is purely visual.

So proposition testing only speaks to 0.001 percent of the available attention in the group.

In order to get real insights out of any focus group, you need to engage the whole human being, their conscious and subconscious selves, the rational and the emotional, or System A and System B consciousness as Daniel Kahnemann describes it in “Thinking Fast and Slow.

And you need to use visually rich stimulus.

A number of years ago our agency, Chemistry, developed a process that we call “Creative Planning” which does just this. It is based on the belief that consumers cannot relate in any meaningful way to propositions, but do respond to narratives placed in a visually rich context.

We find that using these methods in qualitative research, creates much higher engagement with consumers, providing much better, more profound insights than the use of propositions out of context.

Now “Creative Planning” isn’t perfect, But to be fair, consumers in focus groups are never going to be as engaged to the same degree as the customers of a lap dancing club. Whatever the time of the month.