Keep winning at tennis? You may see more images each second, scientists say | Neuroscience

If you have wondered why your partner always beats you at tennis or one child always crushes the other at Fortnite, it seems there is more to it than pure physical ability.

Some people are effectively able to see more “images per second” than others, research suggests, meaning they’re innately better at spotting or tracking fast-moving objects such as tennis balls.

The rate at which our brains can discriminate between different visual signals is known as temporal resolution, and influences the speed at which we are able to respond to changes in our environment.

Previous studies have suggested that animals with high visual temporal resolution tend to be species with fast-paced lives, such as predators. Human research has also suggested that this trait tends to decrease as we get older, and dips temporarily after intense exercise. However, it was not clear how much it varies between people of similar ages.

One way of measuring this trait is to identify the point at which someone stops perceiving a flickering light to flicker, and sees it as a constant or still light instead. Clinton Haarlem, a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin, and his colleagues tested this in 80 men and women between the ages of 18 and 35, and found wide variability in the threshold at which this happened.

The research, published in Plos One, found that some people reported a light source as constant when it was in fact flashing about 35 times a second, while others could still detect flashes at rates of greater than 60 times a second.

This is still some way off the temporal resolution of peregrine falcons, which are able to process roughly 100 visual frames a second.

Haarlem said: “We think that people who see flicker at higher rates basically have access to a little bit more visual information per timeframe than people on the lower end of the spectrum.”

Prof Kevin Mitchell, a neurobiologist at Trinity College Dublin who supervised the research, said: “Because we only have access to our own subjective experience, we might naively expect that everyone else perceives the world in the same way we do. This study characterises one such difference. Some people really do seem to see the world faster than others.”

The study also found that visual temporal resolution appeared to be relatively stable over time within individuals, and that there was little difference between men and women.

While it is not yet clear how such variation might affect our day-to-day lives, Haarlem suspects elite athletes and professional gamers may have higher than average visual temporal resolution.

“We believe that individual differences in perception speed might become apparent in high-speed situations where one might need to locate or track fast-moving objects, such as in ball sports, or in situations where visual scenes change rapidly, such as in competitive gaming,” he said.

“They may have an advantage over others before they have even picked up a racket and hit a tennis ball, or grabbed a controller and jumped into some fantasy world online.”

One outstanding question is the extent to which this trait is trainable. While people’s reaction speeds can improve with practice, this is thought to relate to how long it takes them to respond to something after their brains have visually perceived it.

Haarlem said: “This is more like the information coming in to begin with.

“At this stage we don’t really know much about where this variation is coming from, and what it is connected to. It could have to do with our eyes, or it could be related to the brain filtering out information.”


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