Attention "blinks" differently for plants and animals

CBE Life Sci Educ. 2014 Fall;13(3):437-43. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-05-0080.


Plants, to many, are simply not as interesting as animals. Students typically prefer to study animals rather than plants and recall plants more poorly, and plants are underrepresented in the classroom. The observed paucity of interest for plants has been described as plant blindness, a term that is meant to encapsulate both the tendency to neglect plants in the environment and the lack of appreciation for plants' functional roles. While the term plant blindness suggests a perceptual or attentional component to plant neglect, few studies have examined whether there are real differences in how plants and animals are perceived. Here, we use an established paradigm in visual cognition, the "attentional blink," to compare the extent to which images of plants and animals capture attentional resources. We find that participants are better able to detect animals than plants in rapid image sequences and that visual attention has a different refractory period when a plant has been detected. These results suggest there are fundamental differences in how the visual system processes plants that may contribute to plant blindness. We discuss how perceptual and physiological constraints on visual processing may suggest useful strategies for characterizing and overcoming zoocentrism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Plants*
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Young Adult