The Little Black (and Blue or White and Gold) Dress

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On February 26, 2015 a simple picture of a dress sparked a viral debate with millions of people arguing over whether the dress is black and blue or gold and white. Even in my own household both my daughters saw the dress as gold and white, while I saw only black and blue. The phenomenon of the dress goes to the heart of this site, it’s all about visual perception.

In a Buzz Feed news article, Cedar Riener, associate professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College says “We are always making decisions about the quantity of light that comes into our retina. This light, called luminance, is always a combination of how much light is shining on an object and how much it reflects off of the object’s surface. In the case of the dress, some people are deciding that there is a fair amount of illumination on a blue and black (or less reflective) dress. Other people are deciding that it is less illumination on a white/gold dress (it is in shadow, but more reflective).”

In the same article, the dress phenomenon, according to neuroscientist Dale Purves of Duke University, “shows how strongly people are wedded to the idea that colors are properties of objects, when they are in fact made up by the brain.”

As presentation designers, this event showcases the importance of ensuring there is no ambiguity in our visuals if we want to guarantee clarity of our message. On the other hand, look at the “buzz” this photo has generated, including it’s own Wiki page. With a judiciously placed ambiguous image you could leave your audience with a lot to talk about. Artist Rob Gonsalves has some amazing optical illusion photos that would be perfect for this purpose.

A TV Series for Presenters and Presentation Designers

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You might not believe it, but National Geographic’s Season 2 of Brain Games is a near perfect resource for presenters and presentation designers. While not perfectly scientifically accurate, the series contains a wealth of information about how our brain processes information and it’s delivered in an entertaining format. This is invaluable information if you are a presenter or presentation designer.

The official Brain Games web site has video clips, articles and the schedule for all 12 episodes. Amazon provides the series in both DVD and streaming format. Episodes are also available through NatGeo’s YouTube Channel for $1.99 per episode.

In addition to the series episodes, National Geographic’s Education web site has more resources on how your brain works and, finally, if you’re curious to see how your own brain stacks up, discover your own brain profile at the Interactive Brain Games web site. I highly recommend you watch the episodes first though or you might find you’re not as clever as you thought you were.

The PowerPoint Magic Trick & How the Brain Works

crystalballA few months ago I posted a blog article about why presenters should care about the psychology of the senses.  In that article I explained why mouse-overs can be used to fool an audience into thinking they’re seeing one slide when they’re really seeing two slides with a small difference.  I also posted a PowerPoint presentation which demonstrated the mouse-over technique.  Included in that presentation was the PowerPoint card trick which I said I would explain later.  I didn’t want to explain the trick until after I had posted the Gestalt of Slides because that tutorial covers a lot of the reasons why the card trick works.

If you haven’t seen the card trick, I’ve recreated it below.  Click the icon in the lower right of the presentation to run it in full screen mode. Or you can start it directly from this link: The PowerPoint Card Trick.  Don’t read below the embedded presentation until after you’ve watched the trick or you’ll spoil it for yourself.

Pretty amazing, yes?  Of course the trick doesn’t work for everyone, but it will fool most of us because of the way our brains are wired to process visual information.  A magician would tell you the trick works because of misdirection.  Typically, that means someone would be distracting your focus of attention so they could do something else, but that’s not really the case in the PowerPoint Card Trick.  I can instruct you to focus on a single card, but that’s the extent of the misdirection.

In this case the trick works mostly because of the Gestalt Principles of Perception.  If you went through my Gestalt of Slides tutorial you learned that we view our world holistically and our brains are predisposed to perceive patterns.  Once our brains perceive a pattern we tend to not pay attention to the details.  So in the case of the cards we perceive the red/black/red/black pattern and fail to pay attention to the rest of the details of the cards (except the one we focus on.)  This makes it appear as if I used PowerPoint to make your card disappear when, in fact, all the cards changed.

Interestingly enough, scientists are now realizing that magicians have a lot to offer in helping us figure our how our brains work.  I recently watched a NOVA special and to paraphrase one of the neuropsychologists, “We know how the brain processes visual information, but we don’t know what it pays attention to.”  In the special they use magicians to help them determine just that.  As a presenter this is very valuable information for you to know.  Imagine how much more effective you can be if, like a magician, you can direct (or distract) your audience’s attention to be exactly where you want it.

The biggest revelation of the study was how very much we pay attention to movement.  Basically if it moves, our eyes are going to follow it.  So if you have an item that you particularly want your audience to focus on then move it, move it, move it.  With PowerPoint animations this is so easily accomplished there’s no reason not to take advantage of it.  Even if you choose not to use the animations, simply moving the cursor, a pointer or even your arm can have the same effect.  Even moving your eyes will work because studies have shown we will automatically turn and look to see what the other person is looking at.  We track the movement of each other’s eyes.

Why do we do this?  It’s not too hard to imagine how helpful these traits were to primitive humans when they needed to see a predator in the bush and even today to avoid that oncoming car.

A word of caution, as far as our senses are concerned everything has a very fast extinction rate.  This means we’ll quickly quit paying attention to something that repeats.  Generally speaking, as far as our brains are concerned, if something is repetitive it’s probably not a danger and therefore not worth paying attention to.  So if you use too much movement, you’ll quickly lose your audience.

This is just one small thing covered by the special I watched so I happily post the link for your own viewing.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

NOVA – How Does the Brain Work?