The science behind our search for Waldo Tens of thousands of festival goers dressed as Wally in an attempt to break the record and become the largest gathering of Wallys ever. (William Murphy/Wikimedia Commons)
The science behind our search for Waldo
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There’s more to the question “Where’s Waldo?” than you might think.

Thirty years ago, the first installment in the Waldo franchise was published in Britain. He’s actually known as Wally there rather than Waldo. Since 1987, the sneaky character has become quite the globetrotter. He’s visited France, where he’s known as Charlie. In Bulgaria, he’s called Uoli. In Croatia he’s Jura and in Iceland he’s Valli. Waldo/Wally/etc is even found on Facebook, followed by millions.

Why is Waldo so popular? After all, looking for his little figure in a two-page spread of other characters doing whimsical activities can get frustrating. But it's also an example of a very basic (and sometimes satisfying) cognitive process. That process is visual search.

Humans use visual search constantly, according Miguel P. Eckstein. He's a cognitive psychologist. The technical term for "looking for something with your eyes" is visual search.

Tasks like looking for keys, searching a parking lot for your car, or looking for a friend in a crowded shopping mall are all obvious examples, he writes. But visual search also includes zeroing in on a particular thing in your field of vision, like a coffee cup on your desk or Waldo on a page. These are known as “fixational eye movements.”

Waldo has helped researchers better understand the fixational eye movements involved in visual search. In one 2008 study, researchers had their participants search for Waldo while recording their eye movements. What they found helped resolve the role of a particular kind of fixational eye movement in visual search. “Results showed that the rate of microsaccades - tiny, jerk-like fixational eye movements - dramatically increased when participants found Waldo,” reads a press release about the study.

The results helped researchers to establish a “direct link between microsaccades and how we search for objects of interest,” researcher Susana Martinez-Conde was quoted as saying. “This link can help with future advancements such as creating neural prosthetics for patients with brain damage or machines that can see as well as humans.”  

Science isn't just using Waldo to make discoveries about the human brain; it's also helped us understand how to find Waldo: Data scientist Randal S. Olson computed the best search strategy for finding Waldo and shared it with the world on his blog. 

He used previous findings from Slate’s Ben Blatt that Waldo rarely appears on the edges of the page and never appears at the bottom right of the image. He created an optimized search path for finding Waldo. In case you want to try to optimize your home search, he also looked at the points where Waldo was most likely to be. His recommendations: start at the bottom left of the two-page image, then move up to the upper quarter of the right page, then head down to the bottom righ

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does the article describe Waldo as "tricky"?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (51)
  • JaidenV-del
    10/02/2017 - 04:28 p.m.

    The article, was very interesting because for all i know Waldo was just a character I use to look for in books. The article showed me how Waldo showed us a strategy how to use our eyes to look for something. Using the Human brain also develops strategy. Helping researchers establish a direct link between microsaccades and how we search for objects of interest.

  • KahlilW-del
    10/02/2017 - 04:57 p.m.

    The describe Waldo as tricky cause he tricks the mind by hiding in places you would not think of with. This can cause frustration

  • IsabellaM-del
    10/02/2017 - 05:45 p.m.

    He's tricky because he is so popular for so many different reasons. He also has very tricky names to follow since he is known in many places.

  • ChloeR-del1
    10/02/2017 - 05:45 p.m.

    Why do you pick boring stories?

  • ChloeR-del1
    10/02/2017 - 05:47 p.m.

    nvm this is a good story.

  • ChloeR-del1
    10/02/2017 - 05:55 p.m.

    He was very smart, so it was tricky to read what his mind on what he was trying to say.

  • AngelinaB-del
    10/02/2017 - 06:01 p.m.

    I feel that this article was helpful to somebody who is studying science and the body. If someone who was not interested in science read this article, I believe that they would find it boring. However, this article can be interesting in some ways. The article informs the reader about how scientists study eye movement of a human being and how humans tend to study/look for something. Overall, I liked this article due to the information it gives me. I found it very interesting to know how people's eyes work.

  • HannahR -del
    10/02/2017 - 06:17 p.m.

    I found the article "The Science Behind Our Search for Waldo" interesting because where it states “Results showed that the rate of microsaccades–tiny, jerk-like fixational eye movements–dramatically increased when participants found Waldo". This is interesting to me because once you find Waldo it seems your eyes get happy.

  • DevanS-del
    10/02/2017 - 06:59 p.m.

    I found this article interesting. It explains what your thought process is when figuring out a tricky puzzle like this. These specific puzzles are frustrating; mainly because there's so much going on in the picture. It can be overwhelming for your eyes and brain to focus on a certain area. This article also gives some tips on where to look first when trying to find Waldo.

  • PoojaT-del
    10/02/2017 - 07:25 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as tricky. Why is Waldo so popular?
    Humans use visual search constantly, according Miguel P. Eckstein. He's a cognitive psychologist. The technical term for "looking for something with your eyes" is visual search. Tasks like looking for keys, searching a parking lot for your car, or looking for a friend in a crowded shopping mall are all obvious examples, he writes. But visual search also includes zeroing in on a particular thing in your field of vision, like a coffee cup on your desk or Waldo on a page. These are known as “fixational eye movements.” I think this is very interesting and this gives people a fun, education way to strengthen their eye coordination.

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