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Digital content may be influencing your visual perception: Research


Screens are ubiquitous in modern life, whether they are used for Zoom meetings and websites, smartphones and video games, or televisions and social media. The question is, what impact do all those pixels and rectangles have on our vision?

Binghamton University Professor of Psychology Peter Gerhardstein and doctoral candidate Nicholas Duggan investigate the phenomenon in “Levels of Orientation Bias Differ Across Digital Content Categories: Implications for Visual Perception,” which was recently published in the journal Perception. Their article investigates how various types of online information differ in visual orientation from actual photos of natural, urban, and suburban environments. “When you’re online, you’re in a different world,” Gerhardstein explained.

Gerhardstein and Duggan investigate the “oblique effect,” which states that the brain prefers horizontal and vertical lines to those that come in at an oblique angle. Consider the following: Horizontal phenomena, such as the horizon, coexist with vertical phenomena, most notably trees, in the natural world. However, you will notice objects oriented at various angles, such as tree branches, sloping hillsides, and nodding flowers. Many of those oblique angles are eliminated in a “carpentered” environment created by human hands. Instead, horizontal and vertical objects such as buildings, streetlamps, powerlines, and road signs dominate the landscape. Suburban environments, with their small pockets of nature, fall somewhere in the middle.

The oblique effect can also be seen in digital media such as Zoom video calls, websites, and video games. The researchers used Fourier analysis in the article to investigate the visual orientation of a wide range of digital scenes, from cartoons and video games to websites, and compared the results to real-life scenes from natural, suburban, and urban environments. They discovered that video games designed to mimic the natural world do a passable job of it, preserving oblique angles, though not to the extent seen in nature. On the other end of the spectrum are pixilated videogames and social media sites, which are primarily made up of boxes; these exhibit the oblique effect to an extent not seen in real-world environments, according to their research. “The question is whether this changes our overall profile of orientation sensitivity. People are spending so much time looking at these digital environments that they may become influential,” according to Duggan.

Overexposure to digital content may cause your brain to shift its visual attention — at least temporarily. Students in a previous study conducted with then-graduate student Daniel Hipp played Minecraft for four hours after which their sensitivity to vertical and horizontal lines increased. The oblique effect fades once viewers reengage with the natural world and stop playing the game, as seen with Minecraft players. According to Gerhardstein, research from Canada in the 1970s found that Indigenous people raised in naturalistic environments were more sensitive to oblique angles in general than those raised in urban environments such as Toronto. “At this point, we really don’t know what this means,” he said.

Young people with digital media overuse disorder could be the canary in the coal mine. Hipp, MS ’12, PhD ’15, is now a clinical neuroscience researcher in Colorado, studying a group of high school and college students who are going through the same thing. “We’re talking about kids who were dropping out of school because they spent every waking moment playing video games. “The hypothesis is that these people are subjecting themselves to a digital environment that is significantly different from what other people typically experience on a daily basis,” Gerhardstein explained.

Binghamton researchers are also collaborating with Hipp’s group and have surveyed approximately 1,200 undergraduates about digital media overuse. While an article on the subject has yet to be published, they discovered that 90% of the sample reported frequent video game use, and up to 10% are concerned about the amount of time they spend playing. Has their visual perception been altered as a result of their digital use? It’s a topic worth researching further.

According to the researchers, perceptual changes are neither reflective of vision nor necessarily negative. People can perceive oblique angles even after extensive digital use; they just don’t pay as much attention to them as horizontal and vertical lines. “In general, there are numerous advantages to using online content. “Unless you overuse it, we strongly suspect there is no real impact here,” Gerhardstein said. “However, if you use digital content excessively, you may alter some aspects of your basic visual perception.”

Dhanshree Badhe

Dhanshree Badhe

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