June 25, 2006
Brain Limits Necessitate Colored Uniforms In Sports

We can keep track of more than 3 things only if they are grouped into a maximum of 3 sets.

If someone, somewhere hadn't thought to make team uniforms the same color, we might be stuck watching NBA finals or World Cup soccer matches with only two players and a ref.

It is that color coding, Johns Hopkins University psychologists have now demonstrated, that allows spectators, players and coaches at major sporting events to overcome humans' natural limit of tracking no more than three objects at a time.

"We've known for some time that human beings are limited to paying attention to no more than three objects at any one time," said Justin Halberda, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in the university's' Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

"We report the rather surprising result that people can focus on more than three items at a time if those items share a common color," he said. "Our research suggests that the common color allows people to overcome the usual limit, because the 'color coding' enables them to perceive the separate individuals as a single set."

Employers could increase productivity of employees by reducing cognitive overload of needless distractions. Instead office workers have to listen to more than 3 conversations at a time over cubicle walls.

If you know which color you are supposed to keep track of your mind can focus on that quite well.

Knowing that color is the key to making sense of large numbers of objects "informs our understanding of the structure of visual cognition and reveals that humans rely on early visual features to attend large sets in parallel," Halberda said. "Ongoing work in our lab is revealing which other features humans might use."

Halberda and Feigenson reached their conclusion by asking Johns Hopkins undergraduate volunteers to view series of colored dots flashing onto a black computer screen. The subjects were asked to estimate the number of dots in one randomly selected set on each trial.

Half the time, the subjects were told in advance whether to pay attention to, say, just the red dots or just the green ones. Otherwise, the subjects were required to store as much information as possible in visual memory from what they saw briefly onscreen.

Some sets contained as many as 35 dots and subjects viewed the sets for less than one half second, which Halberda points out "is too short to allow the subjects to actually count the dots." Subjects were very accurate when told in advance which set to pay attention to, regardless of how many different colors were present, revealing that humans are able to select a set that shares a common color. Subjects were also very accurate at enumerating a color subset when asked after the flash of dots so long as the flash contained three or fewer colors.

"We found that humans are unable to store information from more than three sets at once," Halberda said. "This places an important constraint on how humans think about and interact with sets in the world."

Just forget about spectator sports with 4 teams playing against each other at once. 3 teams competing at once are within the limits of what human spectators can track. But more than that does not work.

Maybe the real limit is 2 teams because people also have to keep track of the set of things they deem necessary for watching sports. There'd be no mental room for beer and food if 3 teams competed.

So then do space aliens with greater mental capacities routinely watch sports involving a dozen teams? Also, when human minds get genetically engineered to track more than 3 sets of things at once will human sports also change to bring more teams onto the field?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 June 25 07:36 AM  Brain Limits

rsilvetz said at June 25, 2006 10:38 AM:


Is this a real/genetic limitation? Or is it left-brain vs right-brain cognitive? And what would happen if training were done? (maybe in infancy?) I raise the training issue because of bioadaptation. If one never examined pitchers, one would conclude that maximal human bone density is much lower than it actually can be. If one were confronted with having to track much more on a regular basis, would we grow a few extra neurons?

I would love to put some of my right-brain (full visual thinkers) friends through this test. I suspect they might test with a higher limit as many of them have unfettered access to their visual side. "higher" here need not be more than a few integer bumps, to say 4 or 5.

Being very left-brain dominant, I have had to learn thru self-training to go somewhat right-brain/visual at will. I would love to test myself against the pysch battery while in that mode. And wouldn't testing a couple RainMan's this way be interesting as a control.

Hmmm... I'm now so curious I migh even hack up a quick java app to test this.

Lono said at June 26, 2006 8:15 AM:


How does one explain the popularity of this then?


Never tried it myself - but it's said to be very enjoyable.

I think the grouping of three is really dealing more with Human cognitive efficiencies than with absolute limits - but there is little doubt that the abstraction done by using uniforms (in sports or in war) is very useful to simplifying things for Human concentration.

And I also agree - the typical office environment in the U.S. is insanely counter productive and in-efficient.

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