Scientists are working in a little-known branch of psychology called perceptual learning and trainer are trying use to enhance learning. The idea is to train specific visual skills, usually with computer-game-like modules that require split-second decisions. Over time, a person develops a “good eye” for the material, and with it an ability to extract meaningful patterns instantaneously.
Perceptual learning is an elementary skill that children use to make distinctions between similar-looking letters, like U and V. They can't read but they know the symbols are different. It’s the skill needed to distinguish an A sharp from a B flat or between friendly insurgents and hostiles in a fast-paced video game.
The perceptual skills trainable. We use them anytime we try to learn new material: say, different software for work, or differences in native trees and plants after moving across the country. Once our eyes — or other senses — have mastered these subtle perceptual differences, we can focus on putting that knowledge to work.
In such learning the process is automatic; there’s no thinking involved. “We don’t just see, we look; we don’t just hear, we listen,” wrote the field’s founder, Eleanor J. Gibson, in 1969. We are mssing some steps in our linear process of perception.
In the 1980s a cognitive scientist named Philip Kellman, designed an air plane training program based on perceptual trianing.
Dr. Kellman designed a video-game-like lesson: The student sees a panel and decides quickly what the dials are saying, collectively (there are five or six of them, depending on the plane). A quiz type questioins are asked and evaluated. Then up comes the next screen, with another instrument panel, and then another: all fast-paced, with the same instant feedback.
In 1994, Dr. Kellman, tested this perceptual learning module, as he calls it, on amateur pilots. After one hour of training, novices could read the panel as accurately and quickly as pilots with an average of 1,000 flying hours. They’d built the same reading skill, at least on the ground, in a fraction of the time. So a portion of the training was made faster and it was reassuring to trainee pilots when they went for flying the plane.
Dr. Kellman and others have used variations on this method to quickly ramp up instincts in other complex fields, including dermatology, chemistry, cardiology and even surgery.
In a recent experiment at the University of Virginia, researchers used a perceptual-learning module to train medical students about gallbladder removal. Half the students practiced on a computer module that showed short videos from real surgeries and had to decide quickly which stage of the surgery was pictured. On a final exam testing their knowledge of the procedure, the perceptual-learning group trounced their equally experienced peers, scoring four times higher. Their instincts were much sharper.
The medical school at U.C.L.A. has adopted perceptual modules as part of its standard curriculum, to train skills like reading electrocardiograms, identifying rashes (there are many varieties, which all look the same to the untrained eye) and interpreting tissue samples from biopsies.
The modules sharpen the ability to make snap judgments so people “know” what they’re looking at w
The most important question when dealing with reams of digital data is not whether perceptual skills will be centrally important. The question is when, and in what domain, analysts will be able to build a reliable catalog of digital patterns that provide meaningful “clues” to the underlying reality, whether it’s the effect of a genetic glitch, a low-pressure zone or a drop in the yen.
When that happens data scientists will gain a foothold on the digital data analysis area and a means to build a prototype for applying perceptual-learning techniques. Given the importance of defusing terrorist plots and mining health and economic data being acquired in digital format, digital instinct-building is likely to become crucial, a discipline where people with computational and science specialty will have to grow their visual sixth sense,