Change Blindness and Open Science

By Tim Groenendyk

Alex Holcombe’s research tests the limits of the human brain to process multiple objects in a visual scene, uncovering why we experience ‘change blindness’. Holcombe also advocates ‘open science’ – making science transparent and available to all, not just those who can afford it.

Change blindness experiment

“These experiments show under what circumstances you cannot notice something we thought would be obvious. That helps us understand which incoming perceptual signals cognition automatically processes.” Alex Holcombe.

“Change blindness reflects a limitation on visual cognition,” said Associate Professor Alex Holcombe.

“Because of how our mind deals with the flood of incoming sensory information we’re not able to notice changes in certain circumstances that we’re still discovering.”

An example of one of Holcombe’s experiments (done in collaboration with Professor Jun Saiki of Kyoto University) involves a ‘scene’ – repeating visual display – showing several hundred dots. Half of the dots are red and moving leftward and the other half are green and moving rightward. The dots change colour at the same time – all the greens turn red and vice versa. The goal is to detect any colour change in the scene.

“It’s like you’re aware of the forest but not the trees. Although all the dots (the trees) changed colour, the overall number (the forest) of reds and greens does not change, and somehow this prevents you from seeing the massive colour change.”

Holcombe’s experiments show how limited the cognitive system is and reveal what the perceptual system – which includes many areas of the brain – is doing automatically.

“It’s not easy for us to tease these things apart without creating these weird situations.

“These experiments show under what circumstances you cannot notice something we thought would be obvious.

“That helps us understand which incoming perceptual signals cognition automatically processes.”

Holcombe hopes his work will assist research into designing roads and subways in a way that people are more likely to notice dangers.

Recently Holcombe received a grant from the Templeton Foundation titled ‘New agendas for the study of time: Connecting the disciplines’ working with Sydney University philosophers Dr Dean Rickles, Dr. Kristie Mitchell, and Professor Huw Price – who also heads the Centre for Time.

Holcombe’s work on the speed of perception and cognition may help philosophers understand the experience of time.

“There is some potential for this type of research to inform philosophy.

“Instead of just arguing from their personal experience of time, philosophers may wish to consider the underlying mechanisms.”

Alex Holcombe

"We need another publishing model.” Alex Holcombe

Sharing his research is important to Holcombe. He believes research output shouldn’t be limited to expensive academic journals and advocates for projects and free online journals that encourage researchers to publish their work openly.

“The taxpayer pays for most of the research that’s done but doesn’t get to read the results because of the way science is traditionally published.

“The average taxpayer, business, or independent researcher isn’t going to subscribe to all these journals some of which cost over 20,000 dollars a year.

“So we need another publishing model.”

Holcombe also created an amusing text-to-speech video, ‘Scientist meets Publisher’, that illustrates this point.

Holcombe applauds the recent NHMRC announcement that from July, 2012 all articles arising from NHMRC research grants to be available publicly and free of charge within 12 months of publication.

However, Holcombe wants to go much further than that, with results appearing instantly.

“You’d do something we call ‘open science’.

“Ideally, every stage of the process - preparing, doing the experiments, writing the manuscript – would yield an automatic record posted online.

“Otherwise the publication process can take years. We don’t have that sort of time in certain areas - like climate change research.”

The largest obstacle for open science is garnering prestige, said Holcombe. Journals have an historical advantage over open science - but he believes that can change.

“Government agencies can help, because they can do things like the NHMRC has.

“As individual scientists we can’t fix it. We rely on mandates from those agencies otherwise it’s hard for us to make the choice to publish in outlets that don’t have historical prestige - because it disadvantages our career.”

“But if they require everyone to do it, then the prestige advantage of the journals is lost.”