What makes experts so damn good at what they do? Well, there are some obvious reasons: Experts have more knowledge about their profession (or hobby) than the rest of us, whether they’re painters, car mechanics, or mechanical engineers. They’ve had loads of time to practice their trade. And, according to a new study, they may see things related to their expertise differently than novices—like, physically see them differently.
When I say “things,” I’m talking about a broad range of visuals, depending what type of expert we’re talking about—for example, a mechanic looking at a car engine, or an architect gazing at a building, or, in this case, people fluent in a language analyzing letters in an alphabet. That’s what Bob Wiley and his team at Johns Hopkins University studied in their new research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. They wanted to examine differences in how experts and novices visually process objects, and it turns out that alphabet letters are some of the simplest visuals to use in experiments. (Research on letter perception dates back to the 19th century—it’s one of the first things that experimental psychologists studied.) While most scientists have investigated how people visually perceive the Roman alphabet (the one English speakers use), Wiley decided that if he really wanted to compare experts to nonexperts, he’d have to use a completely different written system: the Arabic alphabet.
For the study, his team recruited 24 Johns Hopkins University undergrads who knew nothing about Arabic, and another 24 adults from Johns Hopkins who could read Arabic well. The researchers had them sit at computers and showed each of them pairs of letters. Participants had two seconds to press a computer key to indicate whether the letters were the same or different. Participants looked at nearly 2,000 letter pairs, and had a half second break between each set.
Wiley and his team analyzed people’s responses for speed and accuracy, and what they found is pretty amazing. The researchers saw obvious differences, of course—the Arabic experts were better than the novices at distinguishing between letters, especially more complex letters. But they also discovered that the two groups unconsciously put different emphasis on certain parts of the letters. The novices visually favored features like horizontal lines (like in T, L, and F) and cyclical features (like in W and S), while experts tended to ignore these traits and focus more on intersections and vertical lines in letters.
Those differences are logical, according to Wiley. “In Arabic, most things are connected by horizontal lines, which means they don’t give you any information about what the letter is—they’re just there to connect the letters,” he explains. “So it makes sense that experts stop paying attention to horizontal lines.” Same for cyclical features—they look complex (but they are common in written Arabic) so nonexperts get confused by these features while experts ignore them. On the flip side, intersections and vertical lines in the Arabic alphabet tend to tell you more about the letters, and that’s probably why experts focus on them more.
The researchers also found that experts were better at distinguishing between complex letters than between simple letters. That result is bizarre when you think about it—it seems like everyone should always do better with simpler letters, no matter their skill level. The researchers think this happens because experts visually process a complex letter in a special way: They see it as one big feature rather than many small features combined. For example, Wiley explains, in the Roman alphabet the letter “W” is very complicated—it has four diagonal lines, three intersections, two endpoints, and it’s symmetrical. But for experts, he says, “Their intuition is probably not that W is complex, but that W is just W—it just becomes one thing. And it looks like that’s part of what happens when you become an expert.”
To be clear, experts and novices do see the same objects, in one sense—their eyes see the same lines, curves, intersections, and endpoints of letters. But in another sense, they’re seeing things completely differently—the experts’ visual system puts more weight on important features, and tunes out less relevant information. Perhaps the strangest part of all this is that experts don’t even know what they’re doing—it occurs on a subconscious level, thanks to our sophisticated visual system. “You can’t ask people what kind of features they’re paying attention to, because they don’t know,” says Wiley, “The actual visual process has changed.”
This type of research on visual perception is critical, says Denis Pelli, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University (who wasn’t involved in the study). “Life without recognition would be hard to imagine,” he explains. “And figuring out how recognition works would be an important milestone in neuroscience,” as well as for progress in areas such as machine learning. Although this study only looked at Arabic readers and novices, Wiley thinks the findings could hold for other types of experts (there’s already some evidence of a similar effect with car mechanics and bird watchers). “We’re talking about things like lines and curves, which exist in any object we see,” he says. “Whatever the object is, you learn which features to pay attention to, for whatever the task is you need to do.”
Yet another reason it pays to be an expert.