In Stress and Coping

Is the mechanics of how you see things might be similar to perceiving stress?

In stress research, scientists tend to use the term “perceived stress”. The use of this word combination does make sense, because the same situation one person perceives as stressful, but the other person sees it as neutral. The explanations of assessing the event differently fall into both psychological and biological planes. The biological approach, that involves the science of ophthalmology, is quite interesting. Jeremy Wolfe, head of the Visual Attention Lab at Harvard Medical School, says that “[i[f we want to know if a specific object is present, we will often need to search for it, even if it is easily visible”.

Making his phrase a start-point, let us look at the mechanics of this process called Guide Search (GS), that was proposed by Dr. Wolfe in 1989. According to his view, GS tracks a complex process, that is being conducted in fractions of seconds. This allows us find “targets” among the “distractors” in our field of vision by applying certain criteria, such as color, shape, size, orientation and curvature, and then assembling those traits into a “single representation of an object”.

Look at the images below to understand what he is talking about:

We process the images making perceptual sense. It means that “the core of GS [is] the claim from the first (pre-attentive) stage could be used to guide deployments of selective attention in the second (attentive stage)”. Wolfe’s latest research investigates some of the limitations on our ability to see what’s in front of us, specifically problems that arise when people are tasked with looking for “rare events,” or things they are not likely to find. For example, radiologists miss 20 to 30 percent of visible cancers. This problem arises because expert “searchers” tend to to lose their touch over time and as a result, most of the time they are looking for the thing that shouldn’t be there.

Dr. Wolfe explains this phenomenon by the fact that “[t]here are really profound limits on the human search engine”. How these findings could be applied to the notion of stress? We live in a highly stressful world: every moment something happens – a traffic jam, being late to work, argues in romantic or family relationships and so forth. Now, let’s come back to the GS images, where our eye was to distinguish an object that differs from others. Probably, we are explaining un unusual event happened to us in the same way. If the situation is anew, we start experiencing worry or anxiety, the level of which depend upon our emotional proneness. Some people are able to recognize the situation, being guided by their past experiences: when they face something similar, they react using familiar coping strategy or strategies to deal with the situation. It means that they do not see the situation as stressful, because they have used to facing similar situations. However, others see the event entirely different from the ones they have experienced before and this makes them worry more than usual and perceive the environment as stressful. It seems likely that the event perception is guided by properties extracted at the attentive stage. In other words, this individual has an attention to perceive the situation as stressful, because it is new in its characteristics.


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