waldoI was watching a TV show last night where one of the characters couldn’t find “Waldo” (a bespectacled boy wearing a red striped shirt and cap) in a Where’s Waldo drawing.

This instantly reminded me of a 2014 study in the journal Hormones and Behavior that shows whether we tend to see an image as a whole (for instance, a forest) or focus in on the details (such as the trees that make up the forest) depends on where we are in our monthly cycle.

To find this out, they gave 40 men, 63 naturally cycling women and 35 women using hormone contraception a series of tests that gauged their ability to focus in on details (which is processing an image locally) and see the big picture (which is processing an image globally).

Two examples of these tests are below where one large letter (O) is comprised of a different letter (C) and where one shape (triangle) is comprised of a different shape (squares). Seeing the Cs and squares means you’re seeing the details of the image and seeing the O and triangle means you’re seeing the image as a whole.


The male and naturally cycling female participants also had their hormone levels measured with saliva samples.

What the researchers discovered:

> Naturally cycling women in the first half of their cycle (the follicular phase) are more prone to seeing the big picture and less likely to focus on the details due to the higher availability of testosterone.

> Naturally cycling women in the second half of their cycle (the luteal phase) are less prone to seeing the big picture and more likely to focus on the details due to progesterone.

The researchers theorize that these hormones impact which brain hemisphere you use to process visual imagery–global processing is done in the right hemisphere and local processing done in the left.

They also point out that research shows you’re better at processing an image as a whole when you’re in a positive mood–and since rising estrogen tends to make you happier in the first half of your cycle while low estrogen coupled with sedating progesterone tends to make you, well, less happy in the second half of your cycle, this may also account for the difference in the way you view the world from week to week.

Since Mother Nature seems to have a reason for most of the effects our hormones have on us, what could be the reason for this change in visual processing? Researchers suspect that when you’re in the second half of your cycle–which begins after ovulation–your body believes there’s a chance you could be pregnant. So, it sharpens your attention on small details as way to help keep you and your possible developing baby safe from danger since you’ll be able to spot snakes slithering into your path, a hole in the ground ahead of you and other potential hazards faster.

So, what’s all this mean for you?

Being able to see an image as a whole can help you in a variety of ways, for instance, it’s usually how you recognize a face, plus it quickly gives you the gist of a scene, for instance, if a crowd of people is celebrating or rioting. However, you could miss an important detail, like that your friend got a new lip piercing or that an elderly person in a crowd needs help.

And being able to see the details of an image can help you, too, for instance, it makes you faster at finding  your child in a crowd. However, you could miss the gist of a scene, for instance, that your child is surrounded by all her “cool” friends and you going over to her would be utterly mortifying.

So, when you’re doing visual tasks, keep in mind where you are in your monthly cycle. If you’re in the first half, be aware that you’re more prone to seeing things as a whole, so if you need to find details, you’ll need to put more effort into that. And if you’re the second half of your monthly cycle, be aware that you’re more prone to seeing the details and missing the overall scene, so if you need a more overarching view of things, you’ll need to put more effort into that.

[Photo: Shaun Sullivan]