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People Don't Often Recall Things They Have Seen Several Times: Study

Update Date: Nov 27, 2012 08:21 AM EST

Most of us know what to do in an emergency. But how do many of us exactly remember the right technique of doing things?

A new UCLA psychology study suggests that in most cases, people do not recollect things they may have seen or at least walked by hundreds of times.

The researchers, for this study, asked 54 people who worked in the same building, if they remembered where the fire extinguishers were available nearest to their office.

It was found that even though the employees walked past the bright red fire extinguishers several times a day, for years together, only 13 out of the 54 (24 percent) could recollect where they were located.

However, when asked to find the extinguisher, everyone was able to do it in minutes. But the participants were surprised they had never noticed the extinguisher while walking past it. The findings stayed the same for people of different genders and age groups.

"Just because we've seen something many times doesn't mean we remember it or even notice it," said Alan Castel, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study.

"If I asked you to draw the front of a dime or the front of a dollar bill from memory, how well could you do that? You might get some elements right. Do you know who the president is? On the dime, is he facing left or right? Does it say 'In God We Trust' on the front of the dollar or the back? Do you know what else it says? You've seen it so many times, but you probably haven't paid much attention to it."

Castel said that it is OK not to remember or notice everything we see, especially if they are not very important in our daily life. However, the same cannot be said about useful information, such as the location of fire extinguishers.

"It might be a good thing not to burden your memory with information that is not relevant to you," he said.

However, "when you're on an airplane, do you know where the life vest is and what to do in the event of an emergency?" Castel asked. "You've been told many times, but how would you respond under stressful conditions, when there could be smoke and people screaming?"

Castel emphasizes the importance of people making errors during training sessions. It can teach us to pay more attention to something that we don't know.

"It's good if errors happen during training and not during an event where you need the information," he said.

"That's part of the learning process."

The study is published in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

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