Humans have a vast ability to notice visual cues and patterns
Recently I saw a video showing a room that slowly morphed from one arrangement and decor to another over the course of a minute or two. The change happened so slowly I was barely aware there were any changes. It reminded me of the video educators show to demonstrate perception where viewers are asked to count the number of times one team passes a basketball. Meanwhile a person in a gorilla suit walks into the midst of the two teams, beats its chest, then leaves. Most people don’t notice the gorilla until it is pointed out to them on a second viewing. These two videos may demonstrate how many things happen too slowly, or how we are focused on one aspect too intently to notice change happening right in front of us.
It’s not through lack of experience of looking for changes in the visual pattern; we are, after all, visually oriented creatures. From the time we are born, we observe the patterns around us and associate certain shapes, such as a bottle, with fulfillment of needs. Gradually we start to associate certain sounds with those visuals, and still later the set of visual markings we call text with the former sounds and visuals. And, we are trained to notice these changes from a young age. “Spot the Difference” puzzles are commonly found in newspapers and magazines. I fondly recall Highlights Magazine and looking to find the hidden objects in pictures. Or searching for Waldo in a sea of people. Some areas of astronomy have a similar investigative approach, comparing images of the same scene captured at different times. This was the method used to discover new Solar System objects, most notably Pluto. We now have computers and advanced software to do this for us.
The ability to pick out changes, to use these visual cues without relying on software to detect them, is something we as educators should encourage more often. However, a common way we engage people in education is to provide the language for a phenomenon before allowing learners the opportunity to experience it on their own. In essence, we provide the model explaining what something is rather than having the learner discover their own. This is particularly noted when there are predetermined outcomes to an investigation or when students are engaged in confirmation activities. Allowing learners to explore first before applying language does take longer, however it takes advantage of their innate curiosity and ability to notice. Similarly, when we carry out outreach events we as educators have a tendency to tell people what they are looking at in detail before they have a chance to see it for themselves. It’s akin to providing the answers to the above-mentioned puzzles without offering the challenge for people to discover them on their own.
Another option is to give people a couple facts about a phenomenon without additional explanation, then observe and listen for signs of wonder and curiosity. This type of interaction promotes thought on the part of the audience even though they were provided some of the initial language associated with the phenomenon and usually elicits questions about what they hear or notice. In formal education, this process/method is generally referred to as guided inquiry, with the teacher acting as facilitator for student investigations. Learners have the opportunity to experience a phenomenon and then ask questions for their own investigations.
It isn’t difficult to find a phenomenon to observe and investigate; they are all around us and waiting for us to notice. One of my favorite cartoons I show to participants in my workshops demonstrates this.
Some might take issue with the idea of “unweaving the rainbow,” and comment it detracts from awe and wonder at the natural world. But for those of us in the sciences, knowing there are noticeable patterns all around us enhances our wonder and curiosity. We seek to understand how the universe works. Knowing there are patterns – and with a little work we can decipher them – promotes curiosity and the excitement of discovery. And it’s only a small step to bring learners of all ages along as we seek to reveal these patterns.
After all, we all have had lots of practice with this, while growing up: noticing and building our own models to explain the world we find ourselves immersed in.
This post originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific