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Exploring the boundary between thinking fast and slow: a tribute to Anne Treisman

February 22, 2018 David Halpern

Attention. It lies at the boundary between perceiving, and thinking, fast and slow.

In our everyday experience, attention, awareness and consciousness are intimately linked. Can you feel your toes? Well now you can. A few moments ago, you probably weren’t aware of them, but now your attention is drawn to them you can feel them, and your socks or shoes against your skin. You brought them into your consciousness, just as, if someone stood on them, they would certainly jump into your awareness.

Attention seems to be the pool in which our consciousness bathes. A question psychologists, and previously philosophers, have wrestled with for generations is what we’re aware of in the shadows outside that pool of attention. Indeed, what is that ‘attentional spotlight’, and what is it doing?

These are questions that Anne Treisman, who died earlier this month, spent her life studying. Though I didn’t know it in my own student days, Anne was also married to Danny Kahneman (and we offer Danny our deep condolences for her passing).

As an undergraduate studying Experimental psychology in the mid-80’s, Treisman stood out as one of the giants of the field. Undergraduates today are still studying her work. I remember being gripped by our lab work studying sequences of visual arrays, seeing how fast we could spot certain letters or features. Sometimes it would take 10 or 15 seconds to find the buried letter, but sometimes it would seem to magically jump out. Why?

As a tribute to Anne, we put together a few arrays below so you can get a sense of how this works, what it teaches us about the brain, and how our minds work. Here’s a nice easy one to start…

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