How observant are you? Here’s a test! Pay careful attention, then scroll down:

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Perception is not neutral, it’s curated. If we paid attention to everything in our environments all the time, we’d be overwhelming with information. So, we learn to direct our attention to what seems important at the moment. As a result, we miss a lot. See this example, too.

The directing of our attention is situationally specific, so we learn to adapt our seeing to differing circumstances. When driving, we see different things than we do when we’re walking down the sidewalk or sitting on our front porch. When engaged in a conversation with friends at a bar, we hear different things than when we momentarily turn our focus to the band across the room. When meditating, we feel different things than when we’re daydreaming or waiting to fall asleep. In all these cases, we miss seeing, hearing, and feeling different things, too.

We can imagine that sensation is culturally specific, too, such that people familiar with different cultures literally sense the world differently. Studies comparing the cognition of people from East Asia and America — communal and individualistic societies, respectively — find that Americans looking at a picture tend to focus on a central object, whereas East Asians pay attention to the relationships between objects.

In one study, Japanese and American citizens were shown an underwater scene, like this:

Photo by mycatkins, flickr creative commons.

Asked to describe the scene afterward, Americans started with and focused on the biggest fish, while the Japanese started with the whole picture — for example, “It was a fish tank” — and recalled more details about the rocks, plants, bubbles, and smaller denizens of the pond. “Americans immediately zoomed in on the objects,” the lead scientist Richard Nisbett said. “The Japanese paid more attention to context.”

Our experience of the world isn’t neutral. It’s shaped by our cultural backgrounds, situations, and choices about how to direct our attention. So, the question is, what are you missing? And what are you seeing that others do not?

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.