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Turns out you actually will go blind

Dig this: A new study has found that sexy or violent pictures can render you temporarily “blinded”— and unable to register any new images for several tenths of a second. The scientists sat a bunch of people down and asked them to identify a particular target image, as a bunch of pictures rapidly flashed by. Most people had no problem spotting the target image — except when it had been preceded directly by a highly erotic or violent picture. Why? As David Zald, one of the researchers, told the New Scientist:

“We think there is essentially a bottleneck for information processing and if a certain type of stimulus captures attention, it can jam up the bottleneck so subsequent information can’t get through,” Zald explains. “It appears to happen involuntarily. The stimulus captures attention and once allocated to that particular stimulus, no other stimuli can get through.”

This has some intriguing policy implications for highway control. If these guys are right, huge roadside billboards of sexy hotties might actually cause accidents: When you’re zooming along at 60 miles an hour, being blinded for even a fraction of second could get somebody killed. And man, would it ever suck to get killed because of a Hooters billboard.

Interestingly, the scientists also found that some people are more susceptible to this effect than others. People who had low “harm avoidance” instincts — i.e. Xtreme sports freaks — didn’t get shorted out as much as more-nervous types. Maybe it’s because their brains are accustomed to ignoring freaky stimuli? Anyway, what I’d be interested to see is what the longitudinal effects of the consumption of porn and violent entertainment have on this “blindness”. If you’ve spent years downloading nekkid pictures from the Internet or watching splatter flicks, is your brain more — or less — likely to be shorted out by suggestive images?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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