Their paper explores how different online data visually differs from images taken from real natural, urban and suburban environments.
“When you’re online, you experience a different world,” Gerhardstein said.
Gerhardstein and Duggan studied the “oblique effect,” in which the brain pays more attention to horizontal and vertical lines than to lines coming in at an oblique angle. Think of it this way: In nature, you see both horizontal phenomena, such as the horizon, and vertical phenomena, mostly trees. But you’ll also see objects oriented at many different angles, like tree branches, hillsides, and nodding flowers.
In a man-made “carpentry” environment, many of these crooked angles are eliminated. Instead, the landscape is dominated by horizontal and vertical objects such as buildings, street lights, power lines and traffic signs. Suburban environments with small pockets of nature are somewhere in between.
Digital media, from Zoom video calls and websites to video games, also has a skewed effect. In the paper, the researchers studied Fourier analysis of the visual orientation of several digital scenes, from cartoons and video games to websites, and compared the results to real-life scenes from natural, suburban, and urban environments.
They found that video games that aim to mimic nature do a passable job of it, retaining oblique angles, although not to the extent seen in nature. At the other end are pixelated video games and social media sites that consist mainly of boxes; Their research shows that they have a skewed effect on extremes not seen in real environments.
“The question is: Does this change our orientation sensitivity profile? People spend so much time looking at these digital environments that it could be affected,” Duggan said.
Overexposure to digital content can potentially change what your brain pays attention to – at least for a while. In a previous research project conducted with then graduate student Daniel Hipp, students played Minecraft for four hours; later, their sensitivity to vertical and horizontal lines increased.
As seen with Minecraft players, the skewed effect tends to dissipate when viewers return to nature and stop playing the game. On the other hand, studies from Canada in the 1970s show that indigenous people who grew up in naturalistic environments tended to be more sensitive to oblique angles than those who grew up in an urban environment like Toronto, Gerhardstein said.
“At this point, we really don’t know the ramifications of this,” he said.
The canary in the coal mine may be young people with digital media overuse disorder. Hipp, MS ’12, PhD ’15, is now a clinical neuroscience researcher in Colorado, where she studies a group of high school and college students who experience just that.
“We’re talking about kids who missed school because they play video games every waking moment. The assumption is that these people might be exposing themselves to a digital environment that’s fundamentally different from what other people typically experience on a daily basis,” Gerhardstein explained.
The Binghamton researchers are also working with Hipp’s group and have surveyed about 1,200 students about digital media overuse. Although a paper on the subject has yet to be published, they found that 90 percent of the sample reported playing video games frequently, and as many as 10 percent were concerned about the amount of time they spent playing.
Has their visual perception already been changed by their digital use? It is a topic that deserves further research.
Perceptual changes do not reflect vision or necessarily negative, the researchers point out. Even after heavy digital use, people can detect crooked angles; they just didn’t pay as much attention to them as the horizontal and vertical lines.
“There’s a lot of benefit to online content in general. Unless you’re using it too much, we strongly suspect it’s not going to have a real impact on this,” Gerhardstein said. “But if you heavily consume too much digital content, you might change some of your basic visual perceptions.”
Source: The Nordic Page