2013-1210 Jay Sanguinetti Psych ExperimentDuring a study, University of Arizona doctoral student, Jay Sanguinetti, used an electroencephalogram (see picture to the left) to determine that our brains perceive objects we may not notice. In other words, what you see is not necessary what you get. The study findings “challenge currently accepted models about how the brain processes visual information.” Although the theory has been believed for many years, this was the first study that proves the theory.

During the study, Sanguinetti showed participants a series of black silhouettes, each silhouette for 170 milliseconds.  Some of the silhouettes (such as the following image) contained “meaningful, real-world objects hidden in the white spaces on the outsides.” Researchers monitored the subject’s brainwaves with an electroencephalogram while the subject viewed each image.

2013-1210 Black and White ImageStudy participants’ brainwaves indicated that even if a person never consciously recognized the shapes on the outside of the image, their brains still processed those shapes to the level of understanding their meaning.  “The participants in our experiments don’t see those shapes on the outside; nonetheless, the brain signature tells us that they have processed the meaning of those shapes,” said Mary A. Peterson. “This is huge,” Peterson said. “We have neural evidence that the brain is processing the shape and its meaning of the hidden images in the silhouettes we showed to participants in our study.”

The finding leads to the question of why the brain would process the meaning of a shape when a person is ultimately not going to perceive it, Sanguinetti said. “Many, theorists assume that because it takes a lot of energy for brain processing, that the brain is only going to spend time processing what you’re ultimately going to perceive,” added Peterson. “In fact the brain is deciding what you’re going to perceive . . . it’s processing all of the information and then it’s determining ‘the best interpretation.’”

Our brains may have evolved to sift through the barrage of visual input in our eyes and identify those things that are most important for us to consciously perceive, such as a threat or resources such as food, Peterson suggested.

“We’re trying to look at exactly what brain regions are involved,” said Peterson. “The EEG tells us this processing is happening and it tells us when it’s happening, but it doesn’t tell us where it’s occurring in the brain.”

Sanguinetti’s study indicates that in our everyday life, as we walk down the street, for example, our brains may recognize many meaningful objects in the visual scene, but ultimately we are aware of only a handful of those objects.

What Do You Think?

Does the study prove our brains perceive what we consciously do not?

  • Why would the brain perceive images we do not know we saw?
  • How do Sanguinetti’s findings affect the way we view therapy or recovery after a brain injury?
  • If the findings are accurate, what would be a reasonable future experiment?


Thanks to Lorenzo Pia for sharing this post; Jay Sanguinetti for conducting the research; the National Science Foundation for providing the grant that funded the study; the University of Arizona (UA) Cognitive Science Program for allowing the study to take place; Mary Peterson (Director of the UA Cognitive Science Program and Professor of Psychology) for providing oversight and advice to Sanguinetti; John Allen (UA Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience) for providing oversight and advice to Sanguinetti; Bing and Google for helping me find the pictures and quotes I used in this post; and all the other people who directly or indirectly made it possible for me to include the picture and text I used in this post.

Publisher: University of Arizona press release
 Mary A. Peters, mapeters@u.arizona.edu
Jay Sanguinetti, sanguine@email.arizona.edu
University of Arizona News Contact:
Shelley Littin, littin@email.arizona.edu

Original Research: Abstract for “The Ground Side of an Object: Perceived as Shapeless yet Processed for Semantics” by Joseph L. Sanguinetti, John J. B. Allen, and Mary A. Peterson in Psychological Science. Published online November 12 2013 doi:10.1177/0956797613502814

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