Everything you see is a lie
“In this world nothing can be certain, except death and paying taxes.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
Of course, the above quote isn’t entirely true. The force of gravity holding us to this planet we would hope is pretty certain. Most of us probably also believe the world around us is pretty certain. I am not trying to start an existential is anything really real? discussion, or suggest some sort of we all live in a simulation shock theory (although…), but merely that most of us believe that we observe the entire world around us through a lens.
A lens that sends information into the computer in our heads, which then interprets this data into conscious experience. In most cases the information will travel through a large variety of areas in the brain, each interpreting it slightly differently, in an effort to create a full and working picture for our consciousness (whatever that is) to understand. In short, our conscious perception of the outer world is akin to being the last person in a game of Chinese Whispers. The signal, by the time we consciously perceive it, is quite different to what it was when it started.
‘Sure’, you might say, ‘that’s great, but who cares because it’s still a true perception of the world around, regardless of how many times it’s processed before we “see”’. But that’s not true. There has never been an image perceived in the history of mankind that hasn’t been altered by the brain from the original input of the visual signal. This is because of the blind spot.
The blood vessels that supply our eyes have to enter and leave the eyeball somewhere, as does the optic nerve that transports all the visual stimuli to the areas of the brain where they can be processed. This leaves a tiny hole where there would otherwise be visual receptors. So, in every image we perceive, part of the image goes unprocessed, yet we don’t notice this. The blind spot is never consciously noticed.
There are two main theories as to why we don’t consciously perceive; the passive theory: we simply ignore and never draw attention to the blank area in our vision; and the creative theory: our imagination fills in the gap with something sensible from the visual input surrounding the blind spot. There is far more support for the latter, but for the purposes of this blog it isn’t really important. The point I want to get across is that even our perception of the tangible world around us is subject to interference from our brain.
Our conscious perception of the world has in some way been altered before we experience it. Hence the title of this blog: an inflammatory way of describing it, but hey, headlines draw attention. What’s more intriguing or possibly worrying (depending on your reaction to the above), is that even after we acknowledge that our conscious experiences have been altered from reality, we are unable to do anything about it. Your subconscious doesn’t put its hands up and says oops, you caught me, and then stops filling in the blind spot. A clearer (more exciting) example of our conscious mind being unable to penetrate our visual processing is represented by optical illusions. Below are a few fun illusions that we can’t but help experience:
These lines are straight, but the way the filled in squares are positioned gives the illusion the lines funnel towards the ends.
The circles in the intersections of these lines are all blank. Choose a dot and focus on it and it’ll be white, but the dots in your peripheral vision flash up as filled.
And this, one of my favourite optical illusions:
Square A and B appear significantly different colours because our preconscious processing recognises the global pattern of the checkerboard and accounts for the effect of the shadow of the cylinder… yet:
They are actually the same colour.
This is all very interesting, but why is it important? In my previous blog I talked about anchoring and contextual biases and we explored the fact that no choice in the world exists in a vacuum, so as a result everything is susceptible to context. What I’m trying to impress on you is that the misperceptions caused by context are not only made by those who are being stupid or inattentive. We are all subject to them, and not just in situations of interpreting intangible things like hypothesised choices or presented information, but also in the way we perceive the actual physical world around us.
While the context of these blogs may seem unrelated to your day to day working lives, it does set the groundwork for how we should start looking at our conscious experience of work-life. Not only do we need accept uncertainty and begin to appreciate that true objectivity is a pipe-dream when any human processing is involved, but most importantly we need to understand that this is OK! It’s not something to be feared, or something to fight against. Indeed by understanding the regular irrational nuances of how we perceive the world and working with them rather than falling victim to their traps or fighting against them, we’ll find objectivity easier than before.
AJ King, Organisational Scientist