If you're distracted by lolcats at work all day, new evidence from evolutionary biology suggests it's not your fault. Human visual attention evolved thousands of years ago to track the movements of animals, and even today people are far more distracted by images involving changes in animals than they are by images of inert Mac laptops or moving cars. This research, conducted by psychologists at Yale, goes a long way towards explaining the bizarrely mesmerizing effect of lolcats, despite the fact that there are plenty of other funny, cute things out there on the Web.
A report on the Yale study explains:
What our eyes look at is guided by brain mechanisms that pick out some portions of a scene over others. Since keeping an eye on predators and prey was important during our evolution, Joshua New and colleagues investigated whether animals, both human and otherwise, are more likely to grab our visual attention. The researchers showed subjects pairs of photographs of natural scenes in rapid alternation, with the second photograph including a single change. As predicted, subjects were faster and more accurate detecting changes involving animals than inanimate objects. If experience were producing this bias, then people should also be good at detecting changes involving automobiles, which as drivers and pedestrians they have been trained all their lives to monitor for sudden, life-or-death changes in trajectory. Yet subjects were much slower in detecting changes to vehicles than to more rarely experienced animal species, indicating that learning is not the source of this difference. The bias for animals, the authors conclude, is like the appendix: present in modern humans because it was useful for our ancestors, even if useless now.
What's great about this research is that it inadvertently targeted exactly what's happening in lolcat images: the animal has been changed from being just a regular cute kitty, to being a cute kitty with special attributes created by the caption. So a lolcat is an animal image with "a single change."
I really want to see a study that specifically looks at what happens to our brains while looking at pictures of lolcats to see exactly what part of the brain lights up when I can haz a cheezburger.
Category-specific attention for animals [PNAS]