Seeing the real world

I seem to have hit a period of recurring themes, coming back to haunt me like a Sierpinski triangle.

A boss of mine some years ago (nice chap) was adamant that he had reached a stage in his life in which ongoing decline in his mental faculties was inevitable. “As everyone knows,” he preached at me, “the brain reaches a peak in your mid-twenties, and then you start to lose brain cells — and they never regrow.” I didn’t believe a word of it at the time; I was convinced that if he was experiencing a drop-off in his mental abilities, he was simply suffering from a severe case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recent advances in neuroscience have borne out my belief. Common sense, ‘what everyone knows,’ has failed again: brain cells can regrow. The brain can be thought of as a muscle: it benefits from exercise. I keep getting spam messages from Lumosity that try to persuade me to pay to play their brain games. I’ve held off long enough that they now offer me 35% discount — I’m holding out for 50% 🙂

Following on from my post illusion and reality last month, Gail at Wit’s End sent me the following image:

An image showing two groups of circles: the circles on the left seem to be indents on a surface, whereas those on the right appear to be bumps

We’re programmed to see the world as though light comes from above

If you’re human, you’ll probably see the same as me: the group of circles on the left appear as indents in a surface, whereas those on the right look like bumps. If we rotate this image through 180 degrees, the bumps will be on the left, and the indents will be on the right — right?

The 'circles illusion' image, rotated 90 degrees (halfway to a complete rotation). The circles all now look the same - and can be seen as either bumps OR indents

Wait, what?

Bumps and indents: rotating the image gets us back where we started from

Rotating the image a full turn gets us… back where we started

— Wrong!

We evolved in an environment where light always comes from above (from the sun); everything we see is interpreted by our brains in that context.

Shadows can lie.

The phrase ‘seeing is believing’ is, in many respects, a nonsense. We never have a true picture of what’s happening in the real world because there’s simply too much information to process. Our brains pick and choose, and interpret incoming data in a way that allows us to perceive the world in a way that is useful to us. This may go some way to explain the problems of cognitive dissonance in general, and climate change denial in particular.

“The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine” — JBS Haldane.

Once we begin to appreciate this truth, we are in a position to question the assumptions we make as we go about our daily ‘normal’ lives. And it’s only when we do realise that the world is different from how we’ve always thought it to be that we’ll be in a position to address some of the challenges facing us, such as climate change, overpopulation, peak oil… and so on.

If you find this as interesting as I do, you might want to watch Test Your Brain:

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About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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5 Responses to Seeing the real world

  1. Eric Alagan says:

    I was pretty good in chess until a man well in his seventies beat me 9/10. That was in 1974. He told me then that our brains need to be exercised just like our muscles. I took it to heart – though science (back then) and common sense said this was nonsense.

    In 2008 at the age of 53 as the oldest student, I completed a masters degree in supply chain management in University South Australia – graduated as top student with a perfect 4.5 GPA score. The next oldest in my cohort was 35 years.

    Yup, that old fellow in 1974 knew a lot more than the scientific luminaries of his time…

  2. jpgreenword says:

    Very interesting stuff. I’ve actually “lived” the idea that our brain is like a muscle having greatly improved my reading and writing skills as well as my memory in my late twenties and early thirties (my current age).

    By the way, I hope you will not be offended that I’ve gotten into the habit of using your “suggestions” but not posting them with the rest of your comment on my blog.

  3. Christine says:

    We humans are such curious creatures – thanks for the reminder of that, P.
    The climate crisis will truly be our biggest test to date as a species; will we be able to overcome our natural tendency towards remaking the world into our own image (aka cognitive dissonance) before we’ve triggered too many unstoppable processes?

  4. Pingback: Seeing the real world | Science News | Scoop.it

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