Following on from last week’s musings on the nature of reality, I’ve drawn together a short list from various sources (including my own thoughts) on the various ways that we fail to see reality as it really is. Conveniently, there are seven of them, and they all start with S (kind of). Here we go:
During the Scientific Revolution, many sources of sensory input were discarded or discredited. In its very reductionist way, science wanted to allocate each sense to its own sensory organ, so we ended up with eyes/sight, ears/hearing, nose/smell, tongue/taste, and nerve endings/touch. But most of us have experienced other input that is as real to us as any of these sensations – things like Extra Sensory Perception, telepathy, lucid dreaming, etc. – as if there is other information available to us when we keep our focus wide rather than narrow.
Try this: close your eyes and move as if to touch your nose with your finger, but stop short so your finger is a few millimetres away. Can you sense that it’s there, even though no nerve endings are touching? Most people can. It’s as if you can sense objects coming into your space, even if they’re not yet registering with any of your sensory organs.
As humans, we perceive things that are relevant to us on our scale, but we’re largely oblivious to things that are too small or too big to matter. Too small: most of us don’t pay much attention to motes of dust. But to a dust mite, a mote appears big, interesting, and delicious. Too big: we’re not good at accurately perceiving large things. I will simply say “Flat Earthers”.
According to Beau Lotto, by the time our brain has finished processing a new incoming piece of information, it is already out of date. Usually this doesn’t matter, but when things are happening very fast, especially if things are moving rapidly towards us, it’s a problem.
Different creatures have different ways of perceiving the world, depending on what’s useful to them. Their senses evolve to fit them to their evolutionary niche (or possibly vice versa). Bats can echo-locate (while most humans can’t – with the possibly unique exception of Daniel Kish). Birds have four types of colour-sensitive cones in their eyes (most humans only have three) so they can see ultraviolet light. Dogs smell at least ten thousand times times better than humans (as in, they have a better sense of smell – not that they are greatly more fragrant than us). In fact, human senses are pretty dismal and dull all round when compared with the sensory stars of the animal kingdom.
As Don Hoffman points out with his FBT theory (see last week’s blog post), fitness beats truth every time. The individual creature that perceives danger sooner (note, sooner, not more accurately) is likely to out-survive and hence out-breed its less danger-aware kinfolk.
Connected to Safety above, creatures that are more sensitive to fast-moving objects, such as cheetahs or large trucks, have better chances of procreating.
(Ex)Spectations (Sorry, that’s a bit lame, but I’d started with the Ss, so I had to finish…)
We see what we’re expecting to see, and we don’t see what we’re not expecting to see. You might well have seen the gorilla perception test (and if you haven’t, I’ve just ruined it for you – sorry!). You’re less likely to have seen this one, featuring a card trick.
Apparently, we only see sharply a tiny percentage of our overall visual field: if you hold up your thumb at arm’s length, its width is the area you see sharply. We put our attention on the aspect that is most relevant to us, and most of what you see in your peripheral vision is being assumed by your brain, depending on what it expects to be there. We’re getting the gist of a scene rather than an accurate perception.
The most important thing to remember in anything related to psychology or neuroscience is that the human brain, for all its wondrous abilities, is a greedy organ, accounting for about twenty percent of our energy consumption, way out of proportion to its two percent of our bodyweight. As we evolved, every single one of those calories had to foraged or hunted, which also required a lot of calories. So the brain developed heuristics, or shortcuts, to save energy. It will do what it needs to do in order to make sure its host (i.e. you) can survive and procreate, while economising as much as it can on energy-expensive processing power.
So you can look to your brain to keep you safe (which is why it doesn’t like change, nor is it over-keen on critical thinking – both of which come with a significant cognitive overhead), but you can’t count on it to be truthful. (And we haven’t even talked about quantum physics, multi-dimensional reality, or the holographic universe yet – that’s when it all gets seriously mind-blowing.)
So what? – you might very reasonably ask. My perception of reality has served me perfectly well so far, allowing me to function in the world and interact with other people and objects. Why would I bother with all this metaphysical gubbins?
I can only answer from my own experience, which is that learning about this stuff has given me an appreciation that things may not be as they seem, that the world is more complicated – and possibly even more miraculous – than we think. This in turn has helped me to be more humble, less dogmatic. If nothing is as plain as the nose on my face, or as solid as the ground beneath my feet, then maybe there are other things that to me seem intuitively obvious, but are actually dead wrong.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain