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Seeing What Others Miss

Novices often notice what experts overlook.

The other day a kid from San Diego exposed a security flaw in the Xbox One, Microsoft’s all-in-one entertainment system.

The amazing thing is that the kid was just five years old.

Researchers have long noted the ability of amateurs to see things, especially flaws, that elude the eyes of experts. The late opera legend Boris Goldovsky, for instance, famously demonstrated this with a piece of music. One day, a student of his was practicing a piece by Brahms when Goldovsky heard something wrong. He stopped the pupil and told her to fix her mistake. The student looked confused; she said she had played the notes as they were written. Goldovsky looked at the music and, to his surprise, the girl had indeed played the printed notes correctly—but there was an apparent misprint in the music.

At first, Goldovsky and his student thought the misprint was confined to their edition alone. But further checking revealed that all other editions contained the same incorrect note. Why, wondered Goldovsky, had no one—not the composer, or the publisher or the proofreader or scores of accomplished pianists—noticed the error? How could so many experts have missed something that was so obvious to a novice?

This paradox intrigued Goldovsky. So over the years he gave the piece to a number of expert musicians who were skilled sight readers of music—which is to say they had the ability to play from a printed score for the first time without practicing. He told them there was a misprint somewhere in the piece, and asked them to find it. He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked and in any way that they liked. But not one musician ever found the error. Only when Goldovsky told his subjects which bar, or measure, the mistake was in did most of them spot it. (For music fans, the piece is Brahms’s Opus 76, No. 2, and the mistake occurs 42 measures from the end.)

As Goldovsky learned, most of us are one-trick ponies. Once we have learned to solve problems by one method, we often have difficulties in generating solutions involving a different kind of insight. The scientist Allan Snyder has noted that one possible explanation for this is that our minds are hypothesis-driven. In other words, our observations of the world are strongly shaped by our preconceptions: we see what we expect to see.

A well-known demonstration of this effect involves the nine-dot puzzle. Simply draw nine dots like so:

Nine-dot puzzle

The nine dot puzzle -- simple, but not easy

Then ask people to connect all nine dotswithout lifting pencil from paper or retracing a lineusing only four straight lines.

Most people can’t.

In fact, over a century of research has shown that the puzzle is virtually impossible for most normal people to solve. Why? Because we literally think “inside the box.” When we look at the dots, our mind forms a box, and we become convinced that the solution must lie within it. But it doesn’t. The crucial insight is to notice that there’s no reason the lines can’t extend beyond the box. (See the solution below.)

Professor Snyder noted evidence that people with brain dysfunctions are sometimes capable of such insights. To mimic these dysfucntions, he and colleagues at the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney electrically heightened activity in the right hemispheres of the brains of 33 ordinary people, while damping activity in the left. The result? Fourteen of themor more than 40 percentwere suddenly able to solve the nine-dot puzzle. (None of those who received a sham stimulation, a placebo, solved the problem.)

The experiment suggests that the ability to solve the problem was there all along. But that ability was blocked by a “mental template”the mind’s way of looking at the problem. As Henry David Thoreau observed long ago, it’s not what you look at that countsit’s what you see.


Nine-dot puzzle solved

The nine-dot puzzle solved -- by thinking "ouside the box."


Chi & Snyder (2012). Brain stimulation enables the solution of an inherently difficult problem. Neuroscience Letters, May 2;515(2):121-4. Epub 2012 Mar 14.

Chi & Snyder (2011). Facilitate Insight by Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation. PLoS ONE, Feb., 6(2).

Hallinan, J. (2011). The Young and the Perceptive. New York Times, Mar. 5.

Kershaw & Ohlsson (2004). Multiple causes of difficulty in insight: the case of the nine-dot problem, J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. 30 (2004) 3–13.

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