What We Think We Know

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Imagine you’re sitting outside, taking in the scenery. You notice a small animal flying through your sight line.
If you’re like most people, your brain categorizes what you saw — “bird” — and moves on to the next thing to catch your attention.
If you’re an expert bird-watcher — someone who’s spent years learning the subtle differences in calls, colors, and movement of birds in a narrow region of the world — you might discern a bright green and light gray plumage and instantly know you’re looking at a chestnut-sided warbler.
Our brains are constantly processing stimuli, often before we’re conscious of it. It’s a complex process that our brains manage by quickly categorizing the multiple pieces of information that come in. It saves brain power.
That’s why the brain of a novice bird-watcher might categorize only as far as “bird.” Another with a little more experience might notice a flash of red, go a level deeper, and register “cardinal.” The expert birders have trained their brains to move beyond broad categorizations and make fine-level distinctions — often in the same amount of time.
Cindy Bukach, a cognitive neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology, believes there might be something to learn from these variations in cognitive processing, particularly in the labels our brains generate when we look at each other.
“The way we interact with the world depends on how we categorize things in our environment,” she says. “And one example of that is the way we categorize faces.”

This feature appeared in the winter 2016-17 issue of University of Richmond Magazine. I also edited a video that accompanied the online version of the story.