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A Moment of Science

Do People Really Have One-Track Minds?

Have a friend who claims to have a one-track mind? Here's an experiment to test that theory.

a man thinking

Photo: Yudis Asnar (Flickr)

Sometimes, people underestimate how complex the human brain is.

And now A Moment of Science demonstrating that we don’t have one-track minds. Here’s an amusing little psychology experiment you can try on any friend who will agree to serve as a subject.

To prepare for the test, use a set of colored felt-tip markers to write down a list of color names. But use the blue marker to write the word “red”, the green marker to write the word “yellow”, and so on. Use each marker to write the name of a color different from the color of the ink in the marker.

The Experiment

Now ask your volunteer not to read the words on your list, but to name the color of ink used in each word, as fast as possible. For most people this takes a surprising amount of effort. When you look at the word “red” written in blue ink, it’s hard to say “blue” instead of simply reading the word “red.” You have to resist the tendency to read.

What this shows is that our perceptual system has one part that reads and another part that judges color. Usually, we get a different kind of information from reading than from judging color, so we have no trouble distinguishing reading information from color information.

Color And Color Names

For instance, if the word “radio” is written in blue ink, the color of the ink is easy to name, because “radio” and “blue” obviously represent different kinds of information.

But this test, in which the name of one color is written in ink of another color, forces both these parts of the perceptual system to generate color names at the same time. Your subject has to make a special effort to select the correct response from two similar alternatives.

Sources And Further Reading:

Harvey R. Schiffmann, Sensation and Perception: an Integrated Approach (1982).

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