The illusion of attention

You board the train, find a seat and open the latest bestseller by your favourite author. The couple sitting opposite are having a conversation, and the driver announces that there will be a short delay to your journey, but you are so engrossed in your book that you are unaware of these sounds. In fact, you have become almost completely oblivious to your surroundings, and you fail to notice that the train is approaching your stop. You reach the end of a paragraph and, looking up from your book, see the train pulling out of the station…

Everyday experiences like this show us that focused attention has a significant effect on how we perceive the world and, therefore, on what enters into our conscious awareness. This has also been confirmed in the lab, a particularly striking example being the “Invisible Gorilla” experiment, by psychologists Dan Simons of the University of Illinois and Chris Chabris of Union College, New York.

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A whiff of early brain evolution

The question of how mammals evolved their exceptionally large brains has intrigued researchers for years, and although many ideas have been put forward, none has provided a clear answer. Now a team of palaeontologists suggests that the mammalian brain evolved in three distinct stages, the first of which was driven by an improvement in the sense of smell. Their evidence, published in tomorrow’s issue of Science, comes from two fossilized skulls, each measuring little more than 1cm in length.

Mammals emerged during, or just before, the early Jurassic period, some 200 million years ago. We know that the earliest mammals were small, nocturnal animals that fed on insects, but there is very little in the way of details about how their brains might have looked, because fossils are scant, consisting mostly of isolated jaws and teeth. A few skulls have been found but until now studying the brain involved damaging the fossils which, given their rarity, was out of the question.

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