Some people process visual information faster than others

In brief: Researchers from Trinity College Dublin have determined that visual perception in humans – that is, how many “images per second” we can process – varies greatly from person to person. It could explain why, disregarding physical traits, one individual thrives in high-paced activities while another falters.

The researchers devised an experiment involving a flickering light to gauge individual ability. The test involved 80 men and women between the ages of 18 and 35, and measured the point at which the light no longer flickered and appeared as a constant.

Results showed that while some people could no longer detect flickering at 35 flashes per second, others could still detect flickering at more than 60 times per second. For comparison, some predatory birds such as the peregrine falcon can process at up to 100 visual frames per second.

Clinton Haarlem, a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin, said they believe folks that can see flickering at higher rates have access to a little more visual information per timeframe than people on the lower end of the spectrum.

Professor Kevin Mitchell, a neurobiologist who supervised the research, noted that because we only have access to our own subjective experience, we naively expect that everyone else perceives the world in the same way we do.

“This study characterizes one such difference,” Mitchell said, adding that some people really do see the world faster than others.

Data further revealed little difference between visual temporal resolution of men and women, and that ability seemed stable over time within individuals. Previous research had indicated that the trait does diminish with age, and that it dips temporarily following an intense workout.

It’s unclear how visual perception speed impacts day to day life, but it’s easy to see how it would give pro athletes or even competitive gamers a leg up on “slower” competition. We also don’t yet know the extent to which the trait is trainable. Does practice make perfect, or is this more a thing that you’re either born with or you aren’t?

The team’s results have been published in the journal Plos One.

Image credit: Chris Peeters, Yan Krukau

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