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Deceptive Perceptions

As a student of science or mathematics it is easy to assume that the world is rational and what we observe is reality. Do you always believe what you see? Sometimes things are not what they seem.

We don’t perceive absolutes. Everything is relative to its context. As an example, look at the two shapes labelled A and B. I hope you’ll agree they are exactly the same shade of grey.

Two shapes

Now if we add some context they look different. I promise they are the same two ‘squares’. By convincing the brain that one is in shadow it adjusts your perception.

Optical Ilusion

Context is not restricted to spatial arrangement it is also related to time and what happens prior to a stimulus. Let me explain this with a thought experiment. Image you have three buckets of water in front of you. Bucket one is filled with hot water, not scolding but like a really hot bath. Bucket two has water at normal ambient room temperature. Bucket three has ice water like use in the ‘ice bucket challenge’. Imagine you immerse you left hand in the hot water and your right hand in the ice water. Leave them there for five minutes then place both in the second bucket with the room temperature water. To you left hand, which has been acclimatised to hot water, this feels cool and to the other hand, acclimatised to cold water, it feels warm. Your brain can amazingly, simultaneously perceive three conflicting pieces of information coming from its senses. Your eyes tell you that both hands are in the same water but each hand is feeling a different sensation. Everything is relative.

This reminds me of Douglas Adams’ Electric Monk from one of my favourite books, ‘Dirk Gently’s Holisic Detective Agency’.

“The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.” He continues, “This Monk had first gone wrong when it was simply given too much to believe in one day. It was, by mistake, cross-connected to a video recorder that was watching eleven TV channels simultaneously, and this caused it to blow a bank of illogic circuits. The video recorder only had to watch them, of course. It didn’t have to believe them as well. This is why instruction manuals are so important. So after a hectic week of believing that war was peace, that good was bad, that the moon was made of blue cheese, and that God needed a lot of money sent to a certain box number, the Monk started to believe that thirty-five percent of all tables were hermaphrodites, and then broke down. ”

Luckily your brain doesn’t break down when confronted with conflicting information it adapts. However, adaptation can sometimes be imperceptible. If change happens too slowly you don’t perceive it as happening at all. I have just had new lenses in my glasses as my eyesight has changed since my last eye test. I didn’t realise this and it took an optometrist to find out. Since the difference between my eyesight today and yesterday is undetectably minuscule, I don’t notice any difference. Add up these minute changes over 700 days and there is a real effect but it goes completely unnoticed. The relative day-to-day change is too small.

A similar thing goes on with frogs. No, they don’t wear glasses! If you cruelly drop a frog into boiling water it will immediately jump out. However, if you put him in cold water and very slowly heat it up the frog will boil to death. The frog becomes habituated to each tiny increment in temperature before it rises.

If you drive a car you have probably experienced becoming habituated to a certain state such that your relative perception is altered. Imagine driving down a completely clear autobahn for two hours at 95mph (153 Km/H). Ahead you see sign that says slow down to 30mph (48 Km/H). Without looking at the speedometer you slow to what feels like 30mph. You’ll probably be travelling at nearer 50mph. Relative to the fast speed 50mph is perceived as much slower than it really is.

So how can the fact that perception is relative help us? If you are learning to Speed Read, you can often restrict yourself because the new fast speed feels uncomfortable. One of the important principles of Speed Reading is to move a pointer along the lines of text to improve fluidity of eye tracking. If you move the pointer insanely fast for about a minute, following with your eyes but taking in very little, you become habituated to very fast motion. When you then read at a comfortable but fast speed you will actually be reading at least 20% faster than it feels like. This is a very powerful ‘trick’ to quickly boost your speed without loss of comprehension.

Try applying the Speed Reading Tip if you like but also occasionally question whether what you perceive is accurate or the result of a relativistic distortion.