We see with our brain, not with our eyes. That is, while our eyes help to capture images of the world around us, it is our visual system as a whole, the eyes and the brain that have the all important task of organizing and making sense of what we are seeing. As it turns out, age may affect how we visually interpret information.

Through the use of Navon figures, a recent study in Germany demonstrated that young adults perceive and process images in a different way than older adults. First used in 1977, Navon figures are large letters composed of smaller letters. Imagine you are looking at a flashcard with a big letter E on it and that, instead of lines making up the arms and spines of the capital letter E, the lines were actually made up of smaller letter Fs. If you were shown this image, what would you report seeing? Would you report seeing a large E or many small Fs? Apparently, it may depend on your age. The results of this study revealed that older adults were more apt to report the Fs while younger adults said they saw one big letter E. The researchers likened it to the older individuals not being able to see the forest from the trees meaning the older subjects were more caught up in the details, while their younger counterparts valued the bigger, broader perspective.

The tendency for people to visually organize things into groups rather than seeing them as individual objects is known as Gestalt Perception. There is a list of rules that need to be met to determine whether or not gestalt perception will be obtained by the human mind such as close proximity and good continuation. For example, the small letter Fs can not be spaced too far apart or it may be difficult for the mind to connect them and construct the big letter E. When laws of gestalt perception are met, people should perceive the whole as greater than the sum of its parts. In this experiment, spacing of the Fs were at an appropriate distance so that the laws of proximity and good continuation were met and that gestalt perception should be possible.

The older individuals not reporting the big letter E led researchers to believe that gestalt perception declines with age. Many studies over the years have shown that cognitive abilities and function can decrease with age. Another visual skill, the ability to detect the direction of motion, has also been demonstrated to decrease with age and its decline can affect older individuals in their everyday life with tasks as simple as judging the flow of traffic. Further studies need to be conducted to better understand why changes in our visual perception occur and what impact they have on our quality of life. Broadening our knowledge of visual perceptual learning and plasticity may hold some answers.

In the meantime, lets not forget, sometimes the beauty of the world around us is hidden in the details.


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Ball, K. & Sekuler, R (1986). Improving visual perception in older observers. Journal of Geroniology, 1986 Vol 41, No. 2, 176-182.

Photo credits: Baby birds, Hidden Chipmunk, and authors pic by Erica Angiolillo; Summer Forest: stock photo at stock.xchng by John Nyberg