Study Provides Insight Into How We Sense Threats In Our Environment

Researchers at the University of Toronto have done some research on our ability to sense threats in our environment. As per the study this response is an evolutionary trait and it is passed from one generation to the next. This trait helps humans to identify the potential danger quickly. 

Study Provides Insight Into How We Sense Threats In Our Environment

The team from the department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science determined that vertical, more angular lines signaled danger while long, smooth, horizontal lines signaled safety.

The reason behind that is that angular lines and shapes common in scenes with rocks, uneven terrain and vegetation are associated with potential hiding places for a predator.

Whereas, horizontal lines denote wide-open spaces like a beach or savannah where a threat is visible from far away and thus can’t hide and can be easily avoided.

“Previous research had already found that angular linear elements were related to threats because they were associated with individual objects like snakes, thorns or something similarly threatening,” says Claudia Damiano, who is lead author of a paper describing the results of an experiment she and collaborators conducted when she was a Ph.D. candidate in the department of psychology.

“But once you already see an object is a snake, it’s probably too late. So we took a step back and showed that from a survival standpoint, it’s more important to quickly understand the scene as a whole.”

Damiano, who is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Brain and Cognition at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, co-authored the paper with Associate Professor Dirk Bernhardt-Walther and Professor William Cunningham—both in U of T’s Department of Psychology. The study was recently published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

“We have known for some time that people can quickly respond to emotional content—in far less than a second,” says Cunningham. “But we don’t really know how people can do this for complex stimuli.

This research provides a hint that maybe we use cues that begin a response before we fully know what we are looking at.”

The researchers used photographs from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) to conduct their research. 

An emotional response for each IAPS image was determined in three ways: how intensely the viewer responded; how unpleasant or pleasant they made the viewer feel; and whether the images evoked feelings of being helplessness or in control.

“When you have a wider view, you can also navigate through open landscapes and flee much easier than if you were surrounded by undergrowth or rugged terrain,” says Bernhardt-Walther.

Damiano and her colleagues created line-drawing versions of IAPS images, without including any information like colour, texture, recognizable objects and other details.

The drawings were created based on Bernhardt-Walther’s previous research. That research concluded that discrete lines are crucial for our visual perception of a scene.

They then asked over 300 participants to rate the new drawings. Drawings with long, smooth, horizontal lines were rated as positive and safe; images with angular, short lines were rated as negative and threatening.

“We created scenes without certain types of visual content,” says Bernhardt-Walther. “And those images with ‘low level’ features were enough to trigger emotional responses.

This shows that these specific features in a scene help humans make judgments about potential threats in the environment.”

“Studies have found that people generally prefer paintings of landscapes over other types of subjects and that this is consistent across all cultures,” says Bernhardt-Walther.

“Perhaps the reason we like landscapes with horizontal lines is because we evolved on the savannah and those scenes ‘remind’ us of our ancestral home.”

More information: Claudia Damiano et al, Contour features predict valence and threat judgements in scenes, Scientific Reports (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-99044-y

Journal information: Scientific Reports

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  1. College Graduates sense Carbon Dioxide Gas (essential to all green plant life) as Public Enemy Number 1 . …………. ………and it didn’t even take one generation to become thus sensitized ?! shalom,a.j.

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