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The egg hunt, competitive or just for fun, is an important Easter tradition. People vary enormously in their Easter egg hunting skills. What makes one person better at finding eggs than someone else? Neuroscientists have been pondering this question for years.
How are your Easter egg finding skills? We hid some Easter eggs in this image. How many can you spot? Image by Julian Tramper.
What came first: the attention or the egg?
Our eyes deliver an overwhelming amount of information to the brain. It’s not possible for all of this information to be processed, and so our brain has to make a choice: which part of the visual field (the entire plane of vision available to sight) will I focus on? This is what we call attention. The parts of our visual field that we don’t pay attention to are barely processed at all, meaning that in the end they are not really perceived. This is called attentional blindness. As a result, it’s possible to look in the direction of an Easter egg without perceiving it. This in turn can cause the sense of surprise we experience once we discover the egg.
How does the brain decide what I’m paying attention to? Scientists think that our brains have two ways to do this. First, something in the environment can attract our attention. For example, a red Easter egg against a green background. The large contrast between the item and its background makes the item stand out immediately. This is called ‘pop-out.’ The second way of directing attention is by our own conscious thoughts. For example, you may expect most Easter eggs to be hidden somewhere close to the ground, so you will pay little attention to places up high such as tree tops. Research shows that it takes much longer to find objects hidden in unlikely places. This suggests that the way we direct our attention could explain some of the differences in Easter egg hunting aptitude between people. In addition, experience teaches us which places are most likely to contain an egg. Naturally, the search becomes easier the more familiar you are with the person who hid the eggs.
Directing your attention is also important in traffic. A cyclist without a light, who crosses the street at an unexpected spot, is likely to go unnoticed until the very last moment. You probably also know that being on the phone while driving will slow down your reaction time. What lots of people don’t know is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re calling hands free or holding your phone. As such, the knowledge of the science behind Easter egg hunting is not only relevant around Easter, but may help to reduce the number of traffic accidents.
Jeroen Atsma is a PhD candidate at the Donders Institute. He studies the effects of eye movements on perception. He prefers dark chocolate Easter eggs. Edited by Julian.