What You Don’t See Could Save Your Life
November 27, 2012

Study Shows, What You Don’t See Could Save Your Life

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Like millions of Americans, you may have taken a CPR course or learned techniques for dealing with other emergency situations at some time in your life. However, if a fire broke out or a medical emergency arose, would you remember the proper techniques? Would you know what to do in the event of a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake? A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLS) has shown that people often do not recall things they have seen or passed by hundreds of times.

The research team asked 54 people who work in the same building if they knew the location of the fire extinguisher nearest their office. Many of these people had worked in the same office for years, passing by the bright red extinguishers several times a day. Yet only 13 people out of 54 — less than a quarter — knew the location of the nearest extinguisher.

The same people were asked to locate the nearest extinguisher and everyone was able to do so within a few seconds. Most of the participants were surprised they had never noticed the extinguishers before. Researchers noted that there seemed to be no significant difference between male and female participants, or between younger and older adults.

The results of this study were published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.

"Just because we've seen something many times doesn't mean we remember it or even notice it," said Alan Castel, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA. "If I asked you to draw the front of a dime or the front of a dollar bill from memory, how well could you do that? You might get some elements right. Do you know who the president is? On the dime, is he facing left or right? Does it say 'In God We Trust' on the front of the dollar or the back? Do you know what else it says? You've seen it so many times, but you probably haven't paid much attention to it."

When things are not important to your daily life, Castel says not noticing them isn't necessarily bad.

"It might be a good thing not to burden your memory with information that is not relevant to you," he said.

Being prepared with safety information, like the location of extinguishers and what to do in the event of a natural disaster, however, can be very useful — even life-saving.

"When you're on an airplane, do you know where the life vest is and what to do in the event of an emergency?" Castel asked. "You've been told many times, but how would you respond under stressful conditions, when there could be smoke and people screaming?"

The researchers returned to the same group of people a few months later and again asked if they knew the location of the nearest extinguisher. All of them were able to pinpoint the location.

"We don't notice something if we're attending to something else," Castel said. "Fire extinguishers are bright red and very conspicuous, but we're almost blind to them until they become relevant."

Whether for emergencies or something as common as learning a new computer program, the results of this study teach us about the importance of training.

Making errors during training is useful, Castel stresses. Error, or even oversights, such as with the fire extinguisher exercise teach us where we are lacking and need to pay more attention in order to retain information.

"It's good if errors happen during training and not during an event where you need the information," he said. "That's part of the learning process."