Did you see that? How could you miss it?

November 26, 2012, University of California, Los Angeles
People who walked past a fire extinguisher hundreds of times never noticed it. Credit: Alan Castel/UCLA psychology

You may have received CPR training some time ago, but would you remember the proper technique in an emergency? Would you know what to do in the event of an earthquake or a fire? A new UCLA psychology study shows that people often do not recall things they have seen—or at least walked by—hundreds of times.

For the study, 54 people who work in the same building were asked if they knew the location of the fire extinguisher nearest their office. While many of the participants had worked in their offices for years and had passed the bright red extinguishers several times a day, only 13 out of the 54—24 percent—knew the location.

When asked to find a fire extinguisher, however, everyone was able to do so within a few seconds; most were surprised they had never noticed them. The researchers found no significant differences between , or between older and younger .

"Just because we've seen something many times doesn't mean we remember it or even notice it," said Alan Castel, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study. "If I asked you to draw the front of a dime or the front of a dollar bill from , how well could you do that? You might get some right. Do you know who the president is? On the dime, is he facing left or right? Does it say 'In God We Trust' on the front of the dollar or the back? Do you know what else it says? You've seen it so many times, but you probably haven't paid much attention to it."

Castel said that not noticing things isn't necessarily bad, particularly when those things are not important in your daily life. "It might be a good thing not to burden your memory with information that is not relevant to you," he said.

But with safety information, such as knowing where fire extinguishers are or what to do in an emergency, being prepared can, of course, be very useful.

"When you're on an , do you know where the life vest is and what to do in the event of an emergency?" Castel asked. "You've been told many times, but how would you respond under stressful conditions, when there could be smoke and people screaming?"

A few months after being asked the location of the nearest fire extinguisher, the study were asked again if they knew where the closest one was. All of them knew.

"We don't notice something if we're attending to something else," Castel said. "Fire extinguishers are bright red and very conspicuous, but we're almost blind to them until they become relevant."

What does this tell us about the importance of training, whether for emergencies or something as common as learning a new computer program?

Castel stresses that making errors during training is useful. As with the exercise, errors—or simple oversights—can teach us that we don't know something well and need to pay more attention in order to remember it.

"It's good if errors happen during training and not during an event where you need the information," he said. "That's part of the learning process."

The study is published in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

Explore further: Forgetting is part of remembering

Related Stories

Forgetting is part of remembering

October 18, 2011
It's time for forgetting to get some respect, says Ben Storm, author of a new article on memory in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. "We need to rethink how ...

Being in the 'no': questions influence what we remember

September 14, 2011
Imagine that you are sitting in the park, deeply engaged in a conversation with your loved one. A group of teenagers pass by in front of you. The next day you learn that the police are looking for someone to identify them ...

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.