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AT-NCIGT - The National Center for Advanced Technologies for Image Guided Therapy

Jeremy Wolfe, PhD: OMG, I Did Not See That! The Science of Missing what is Right in Front of Your Eyes

Jeremy Wolfe

Jeremy M Wolfe, PhD
Professor of Ophthalmology & Radiology, Harvard Medical School
Visual Attention Lab
Department of Surgery, Brigham & Women’s Hospital


We cannot simultaneously recognize every object in our field of view. As a result, we deploy attention from object to object or place to place, searching for what we need. This is true whether we are looking for the cat in the bedroom or cancerous nodules in a lung CT. We do not search at random. Our attention is guided by the features of the targets we seek and the structure of the scenes in which those targets are embedded. Again, this is true whether that scene is a bedroom or a lung. Unfortunately, our search engine does not work perfectly and we sometimes fail to find what we seek, even when that target is, literally, right in front of our eyes. We are even more likely to miss important items are present while we are looking for something else. When those missed targets are such things as tumors or bombs, these errors are socially significant, worth understanding and, if possible, correcting. In this talk, I will illustrate some of the basic principles of human visual attention. I can promise that you will fail to see some things that you would think you should have seen. Finally, I will present data showing how those principles play out in medical image perception.

Short Bio

Jeremy Wolfe is Professor of Ophthalmology and Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School. He is Director of the Visual Attention Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Wolfe received an AB in Psychology in 1977 from Princeton and his PhD in Psychology in 1981 from MIT under the supervision of Richard Held. His research focuses on visual search and visual attention with a particular interest in socially important search tasks in areas such as medical image perception (e.g. cancer screening), security (e.g. baggage screening), and intelligence. Wolfe’s Guided Search model is one of the leading theoretical approaches to the study of visual search. He has published over 190 peer-reviewed articles (>28000 citations, h-index=76 in Google Scholar). His lab has been funded since 1982 by NIH, NSF, AFOSR (Air Force), ONR (Navy), ARO (Army), Homeland Security, and the Nat. Geospatial Agency as well as by IBM, Google, Toshiba, and Hewlett-Packard. Wolfe taught Intro. Psychology and other courses for 25 years, mostly at MIT. Wolfe is Immediate Past President of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) member of the Board of the Vision Sciences Society. He is founding Editor-in-Chief of Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (CRPI). Wolfe has been President of the Eastern Psychological Association, Chair of the Psychonomic Society and Editor of Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics. Wolfe also serves as East District Chair of the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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