According to new research, when we’re told to pay attention to specific events in the world, our minds may not record reality as accurately as we would like. This could have big implications for activities that involve making decisions based on external actions and events.

"Figuring out where objects are in the world seems like one of the most basic and important jobs the brain does," says Brandon Liverence, a graduate student at Yale University. "It was surprising to discover that even this simple type of perception is warped by our minds.” Liverence and his team had participants focus on two circles out of a group of four circles. The circles all moved and changed color, and the participant were asked to click a key when either of the two target circles turned red or blue.

'We tend to think that attention clarifies what's out there. But it also distorts.'

When the trial (which only lasted a few seconds) was over, the circles all disappeared, and the participants were then asked to choose the locations that last contained the target circles.

Part of the results was encouraging, especially for people who drive, cross busy streets, or are competing in sporting events: Participants were fairly accurate in detecting where the circles had last been. When they did make errors, they fell into one of two categories. As previous research had found, participants tended to think that the targets were closer to the center of the display than they actually were. But the second finding was surprising: People also rated the two target objects as being closer to each other than they actually were, and said that the non-target objects were further apart than they actually were.

The study supports the increasing evidence showing that perception is just that – perception. And paying attention to objects in the visual field doesn’t insure its accuracy. “Attention is the way our minds connect with things in the environment, enabling us to see, remember, and interact with those things,” says Liverence. “We tend to think that attention clarifies what's out there. But it also distorts.”

Indeed, other recent research has suggested that our ability to imagine objects or events can significantly influence our actions. Part of the reason that optical illusions and magic tricks can be so convincing is that the mind is so easy to trick – which makes the world both enchanting and a bit unsettling.

We’ll certainly keep abreast of the latest research, as experts uncover more and more about how the brain perceives and processes the world around it.

The research was carried out at Yale University, and will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal, Psychological Science.