We all know that our eyes can be fooled by optical illusions, but how confident can we be about the ordinary world around us? The answer isn’t as simple as it might appear. The world we see is created by the mind from incomplete information, and there’s no way for us to be certain that isn’t adding information elsewhere without us noticing. Well, not unless we happen to be sure that what we’re seeing isn’t real:
An elderly woman named Rosalie was sitting in her nursing home when her room suddenly burst to life with twirling fabrics. Through the elaborate drawings, she could make out animals, children, and costumed characters.
Rosalie was alarmed, not by the intrusion, but because she knew this entourage was an extremely detailed hallucination. Her cognitive function was excellent, and she had not taken any medications that might cause hallucinations. Strangest of all, had a real-life crowd of circus performers burst into her room, she wouldn’t have been able to see them. She was completely blind.
We’ve talked before about how our perception isn’t always an accurate representation of the world, and this video is a perfect example of that. Press play, focus on the word “Brainstorm” or the words “Green needle”, and the the audio will seem to say the one you’re focusing on.
After a little practice I was able to switch between the two at will while others only seem to be a able to hear one. How did you get on?
"What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly."
At first glance, time seems to be as objective a measure of our reality as we could hope to find. Seconds, minutes, hours. Weeks, months, years. Time appears to pass in a consistent, dependable way. But when you add the filters of human experience into the mix, things get more complicated.
For example, it’s often been noted that time seems to speed up as we age. For a 4 year old child say, a year feels like an eternity. It’s 25% of their entire existence. They will learn countless things about the world, have any number of new experiences, their minds will literally be different at the end of the year than they were at the beginning.
Things are very different for a 40 year old. A year is a mere 2.5% of their life. Very little about their minds or their experiences or the things they hold true will change. And so, a year seems to flash by in an instant.
But even for our hopelessly over the hill 40 year old, there are ways in which this change in the perception of time can be reversed. As I’ve hinted at, it has to do with the way they use their mind:
During what psychologists call “flow states,” where one is completely immersed and absorbed in a mental or physical act, people often report an altered sense of time, place, and self. It’s a transportive and pleasurable experience that people seek to achieve, and that neuroscience is now seeking to understand. A great example of flow state is found in many improvised art forms, from music to acting to comedy to poetry, also known as “spontaneous creativity.” Improvisation is a highly complex form of creative behavior that justly inspires our awe and admiration. The ability to improvise requires cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking and discipline-specific skills, and it improves with training.
Children are naturally able to absorb themselves in whatever activity they’re engaged in. The world is still interesting to them. Learning is still their nature state. As a result, they are more often in a state where their minds are in something like this “flow state”. This state is still available as we grow older as long as we don’t allow ourselves to see the world as boring and predictable. As long as we still find ways to find the world interesting and worthy of our attention.
So if life feels like it’s passing you by, find something to be interested in. Engage with the world more fully. Who knows, you might live a little longer.
How much do our senses tell us about the world? Well, we already know that there’s a lot they miss. Infra-red and ultraviolet light, ultrasonic waves, and a host of tastes and smells that our animals friends can detect, are imperceptible to us.
But even the things we can see, hear and feel can’t necessarily be trusted. As much as it may seem like it, our senses don’t give us an objective, unfiltered view of the world. What we perceive is simply our brain’s best guess of what’s going on around us based on past experience, our current emotional state, and plain old fashioned guesswork.
The story emerging from a rich blend of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience is that the self is not ‘that which does the perceiving’. Instead, the self is a perception too. Or rather, it is a collection of related perceptions. Experiences of the world, and of the self, are created by the brain following a common principle – a principle of ‘best guessing’, or what we might call ‘controlled hallucination’.
The bedrock idea is simple. Raw sensory signals are ambiguous and unlabelled. Although they reflect really-existing properties of the world, they do so only indirectly. The eyes are not transparent windows from a self out onto a world, nor are the ears, nor are any of our senses. The perceptual world we encounter – a world full of well-defined objects with various properties like shape and colour – is created by the brain through a process of inference, of under-the-hood neurally-implemented probabilistic guesswork. When I see a red coffee mug on the table in front of me, this is because ‘red coffee mug’ is the brain’s best guess of the hidden and ultimately unknowable causes of the corresponding sensory signals. When I experience the glow of a sunset, or the sharp taste of an adventurous cheese, that too is a perceptual best-guess. We never experience sensory signals ‘in-the-raw’. Every experience is an interpretation, a construction.
Have you ever found yourself wondering how it’s possible that people believe the things that they do? The truth is, they’re probably wondering the same about you.
The reason for this disconnect is the algorithms we all rely on to filter and curate the news we consume. Because these algorithms are trained to give us more of the content we’re already drawn to, the way that the world is presented to each of us can look vastly different. Exposing these differences is why their.tube was created:
Theirtube is a Youtube filter bubble simulator that provides a look into how videos are recommended on other people’s YouTube. Users can experience how the YouTube home page would look for six different personas. Each persona simulates the viewing environment of real Youtube users who experienced being inside a recommendation bubble through recreating a Youtube account with a similar viewing history.
The personas currently available are: liberal, conservative, prepper, climate denier, fruitarian and conspiracist. Take a look. It’s genuinely alarming to see the stark contrast in how the world is presented.
To say “it’s easy to overlook the fact that our perception isn’t the same as reality,” is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time. It’s almost impossible not to overlook it. Not overlooking it takes dedicated effort which still only allows us to overlook it for brief periods.
Everything we experience, from sounds, to smells, to the words on this screen, even the feeling that we are a single cohesive self, is a construction of the mind. An attempt to make sense of an influx of various vibrations and energy frequencies. This article by Anil Seth captures the idea with an eloquence I’ve not seen before:
…imagine being a brain. There you are, locked inside the bony vault of the skull, trying to figure out what’s out there in the world. There’s no light in the skull; there’s no sound either. It’s completely dark and it’s utterly silent. Your eyes and your ears just deliver streams of electrical signals to the brain.
These signals don’t come with labels attached – “I’m from a cat! I’m from a coffee cup!” – they are just electrical signals, signals which do not themselves have any shape, color, or sound. Therefore, in order to figure out what’s out there in the world, the brain has to combine these ambiguous sensory signals with some prior “expectations” or “predictions” about the way the world is. And that’s what we perceive – the brain’s “best guess” of the causes of its sensory signals.
June 18, 2020 6:26 pm - Steve Peters
At this early stage (forthrig.ht is currently 3 days old), 5 of the 12 posts on this website, almost 50%, concern racism. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, except the fact that my intention wasn’t really to touch on racism at all. At least not here. Part of the reason for this is timing….read more…