The science of keeping an open mind

Credit: Laitr Keiows via Wikimedia Commons.

Having an open mind can only help these days; the world is rapidly changing in every way – from how we think of education and jobs to how we communicate with one another – and being receptive and creative in today’s climate is often seen as an incontestable advantage. However, defining open-mindedness and what it means on a neurological level is no trivial task, especially since, like other cognitive processes such as consciousness, it is difficult to investigate using the methods currently available to us.

In the five-factor model, a psychological model used to describe and study personality, the openness to experience trait is characterised, among other things, by an active imagination and intellectual curiosity. However, concrete evidence to support this model has been lacking. Luckily, researchers at the Melbourne School of Psychological Science, University of Melbourne have recently broken ground in this field by showing that people who are more receptive to new experiences and ideas not only experience different cognitive patterns, but literally see the world differently on a much more basic visual level.

The researchers assessed visual perception in 123 undergraduate students by examining a perceptual process known as binocular rivalry. In binocular rivalry, two different images are presented to each eye individually – in this case, an image consisting of red orthogonal gratings to one eye and one consisting of green orthogonal gratings to the other eye. In most people, this would result in both images being alternately perceived by the brain, with only the red gratings being ‘seen’ for a while, after which just the green gratings would be perceived. However, every so often observers will perceive an image combining the two patterns. This is called rivalry suppression or mixed percept and is considered a ‘creative’ solution to the choice that the brain is forced to make between the two different stimuli.

One interesting detail about mixed percept is that different people will experience it for different amounts of time during an experiment, but that stretch of time tends to remain constant for each individual, suggesting it may be linked to personality. Based on this, the authors, who have just published their research in the Journal of Research in Personality, hypothesised that mixed percept may be linked to openness to experience and administered this test to the students, who had taken a personality test beforehand. By correlating the results of the experiment to these personality tests, they discovered that people who scored higher in the ‘openness’ and ‘extraversion’ categories were more likely to experience mixed percept than those who are more withdrawn, for example.

The implications of this study are particularly significant since traits such as openness have generally been considered to have implications only on the cognitive level (the processes through which we store memories, solve problems and analyse the world around us), but these findings suggest that personality traits might influence even the visual perception processes through which we experience our surroundings on the most basic of levels – that, essentially, people who are more open literally see the world in a different light.


This article was written by Teodora Aldea and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.


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