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"Tell and Show" -- The Discovery Files

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Cognitive psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and University of California have shown that an image displayed too quickly to be seen by an observer can be detected if the participant first hears the name of the object.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Say It -- See It.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

The results of a study led by cognitive psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania say we're more likely to see and recognize an object flashed on the screen -- if we first hear what that object is. Even if it is only on the screen for a virtually invisible 50 milliseconds! That's half as long as the blink of an eye.

In some of the tests, participants were asked to detect the presence or absence of large capital letters that flashed on the screen. In other experiments researchers showed the object ahead of time instead of verbalizing but that didn't seem to help. Only the correct verbal cues consistently led to the most positive I.D.s.; those verbal cues worked even if the object appeared in an unexpected part of the screen.

The study is part of a larger effort to understand how high-level expectations can affect low-level sensory processing. It's like a reverse game of show-and-tell -- if we tell first, the object is more likely to show. Perception being shaped by language.

There can be many factors that influence the way we see things. One of the strongest may be the power of the spoken word -- which -- I'm out of right now.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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