By looking for connections.
For nearly two years, the team has been exploring the possibility that if you saw what was in front of you, it wouldn’t be there. If you heard what was on the other end of a radio or television set, it might not be there. When you see something on the web and you believe what you’re seeing, it looks real because there are billions of connections.
But the researchers have been surprised by the number of false connections they came across as they ran these experiments. And when they looked at other systems, from computers to the brains of dolphins to plants and the human brain, they found that if a person thinks at any one moment that they’re seeing a particular image, they are wrong. Even if they’re not being fooled by a false image, their vision of that image may get distorted or obscured by things that look real.
“It’s a false positive,” says Paul G. Stancil of the University of Miami. If a person sees a picture and thinks it’s a real one, they may mistake it for something else.
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Stancil and colleagues began their study in 2004 by conducting a visual search experiment in which they showed people two different images: The first came from a computer, showing a cartoon character, and the second was from the real world — a woman with glasses and long hair walking toward a computer screen. When people were asked what was on the computer, many said, “A person.”
This time, they invited a second group of 12 people to see the computer image and to think that the image was real.
A year later, the researchers found a way to study the participants, asking the experimenters to watch them scan the computer screen and then read what they had just seen.
For the second scan, the participants saw the computer image, which was a black-and-white picture of a woman with dark hair and a big blue bow, crossing a path behind her. There were many false connections from the image to another picture: The woman walking, for example, followed a blue path down a road, while a woman in a red dress, in a similar position, crossed the road to the left.
Another finding was that if the person’s perception of what was on the screen changed, then the false connections persisted. “The idea was, you cannot fake this,” Stancil says.
This was not what they expected. The false connections
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