It’s what we’re constantly doing. Or it’s what our minds are constantly doing; we’re constantly “auto-correcting” what we see and hear to conform to sounds, words and images that we can recognize.
We don’t actually perceive reality as it is. Instead we “see” the model of reality that is constructed inside our minds. Our brains are bombarded with signals from the outside world in the form of light, sound, smell, touch, and constructs a consistent scene of the current surroundings in our heads. An important thing to realize is that the constructed model is derived from comparing the current input to past experiences, to what’s already stored there. We don’t “see” or “hear” as much as we “recognize”. There’s a couple of simple experiments and a TED talk by a visual artist I’d like to share, that show how good we are at auto-correcting and filling in any gaps with what’s stored in our minds already.
We are visual creatures first and foremost. And we’re social beasts with a talent for language. There’s this famous study, the results of which I’m sure most of you know of, that illustrates how good we are at visually auto-correcting language:”
“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.” – source: Medical News Today
Now what about hearing? Below I’ll link a 10 second video that I invite you to play, and than immediately press the replay button:
Now, if you’ve replayed the audio, you’ll have noticed that you kept hearing the tone go up higher and higher, even if it’s the same notes being played. In theses mere ten seconds your brain has “learned” to expect the next tone to be higher, so even when you restart with the lowest tone, you perceive it to be higher that the highest tone at the end. Your brain constantly predicts how the next scene in the ever moving model of reality should look and sound.
If you’ve never heard about the McGurk effect, I invite you to look at the next short video; it perfectly illustrates that we are visually biased, that our sight takes precedence over all other senses in the creation of our inner world. Again we’ll hear the same sound being played, but hear something different. This time not motivated by what we just learned, but by what our sight tells us to expect.
What we don’t recognize and what we don’t pay attention to doesn’t get included in our mental image of reality. There’s this experiment where an entire audience is asked to watch a game of two teams that pass a ball among each other and try to intercept it when the rival team has possession; the audience is asked to try to count how often the team with the white shirts has passed the ball among each other. After 5 or so minutes of the teams playing and the audience counting, the host reveals to the audience that the game has been recorded on video, and asks a couple of times for the audience to raise their hands if they think the white shirt team has passed the ball X times. The audience responds by raising their hands if their number is called. And then the host asks: “how many of you saw the gorilla?” … And almost no one raises their hand. The host says he’ll prove the gorilla was there by playing the recorded video, and to the audience’s amazement after 2 or three minutes a big man wearing a gorilla-suit leisurely strolls upon the podium, stands still in the middle of the playing field, waves at the audience, and slowly strolls back of the podium.
What we don’t pay attention to we don’t see, or, we see what we pay attention to; the rest gets excluded from our model. I’ll tell an old story from a tribe of Indians living in a South American jungle, near one of the coasts. They had this story that told of the tribe going hunting and fishing at the coastline regularly. One day they saw, in the distance, strange V-shaped waves in the sea. And each time afterwards, when they came back, these mysterious waves became bigger, until one day the waves were gone, but on the beach was a gigantic wooden ship, out of which dozens of strange, white skinned and thin nosed humans came.
These Indians saw the nearing of a Spanish or Portugese (I forget, was a long time since I saw the documentary about these people) frigate, without ever seeing the ship. They had no concept of such a thing in their brains. Water and waves, those they could recognize, so they saw the ship’s wake, but not the ship itself, until it was right before their eyes. And it wasn’t for the sharpness of their vision; the fact that they could see the wake days before arrival of the ship is an indication of healthy eyesight.
We’re also extremely adept at facial recognition. This is why we see faces everywhere and in everything, and why we only need two dots and a bent line to draw a face. We don’t see that face, we recognize it. As much as seeing is believing, the opposite holds true to: believing is seeing. “I’ll believe it when I see it” could sometimes mean “I’ll see it when I believe it.” I’ll leave you with one more video. It’s a lovely, educating and funny TED talk by visual artist Christoph Niemann, who uses our brain’s capacity to fill in the gaps, to recognize things, in a most original manner: