Choose Your Delusion

Things are not always as they seem. We’ve all heard that cliche. Yet, as I always argue, hackneyed phrases develop by virtue of their repeated confirmation of a truth. Still…to what degree can such a claim be made? How far can this cliche really extend? Is it simply a fun expression to throw around in situations that teach us we don’t always see the “whole” story in the face of a given experience? Or does this phrase literally translate into our embodied and physical experience with the world around us? I think you can guess where I’m going with this…

What you see…may be an illusion.

At first blush, this may seem quite annoying. Does this mean that your brain is an unreliable reporter of “objective” reality? Well, yes – but perhaps this is not entirely bad news. Besides the fact that it gives you some neat party tricks to share with your friends, the brain’s inherent biases and filters…may actually be viewed a useful thing. This perspective (pun initially unintended!) recognizes that the more interesting question is: “How are these filters useful?” Indeed why would the brain function to enhance contrasts, to prime and bias our lexical systems, to be so malleable in the face of competing modes of information (for example: incongruent visual versus auditory stimuli)? Indeed, if we do have such built-in biases, what does this mean for us as humans? What does it mean in terms of how we subsequently choose to interact with the world around us?

The “Perceptions & Sensations” portion of the Being Human 2012 conference explored some of these very questions.  Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist who studies perception at the University College-London (UCL), began exploring the can-of-worms topic “perception” by starting with: how we see light. “Even jelly fish see light and they don’t even have a brain… it doesn’t get much simpler than that,” Beau shared. And so we began.

We began with a series of optical illusions. These always make for convincing demonstrations since we, as humans, tend to trust our sense of sight (even when we “know better”), almost preferentially above other senses. Some of the most striking examples were of shapes that were the same shade of gray but when placed in an environment surrounded by black or white, suddenly appeared either lighter or darker, respectively. In neuro-jargon, this effect is termed “contrast enhancement” See below for yourself!

Btw, just for kicks, click here for some other fun optical illusions to play around with.

Next, Beau went on to explain that the brain is – on a large scale – working hard to make sense of its experience. In order to do this, the brain must necessarily be characterized by the appropriate degree of flexibility. After all, we are not presented with the same set of environments all the time – and one of the great hallmarks of “being human” is our capacity to learn in a variety of contexts. To demonstrate this point, Beau dragged the unsuspecting Peter Baumann (the man whose foundation generously funded and organized the conference) onto the stage to be a volunteer. “It’s not very invasive,” Beau jokingly reassured Peter. Indeed. The task? Throw a green ball at a giant dot on the screen in front of him. Easy enough, right?

Well, it took Peter a few tries to get a couple of reliable close-to-target shots. Great. Short training period: done. Next? Well, my UC Davis Neurofolk will recognize what we refer to as Will DeBello’s “Prism Goggles”. Yes. Beau handed Peter a pair of prism goggles. Now for those of you unfamiliar with what these do: they essentially shift your visual world a full twenty degrees to the right. Eek! In other words: Peter was now seeing the black dot twenty degrees shifted over from its actual location – which meant, in order for him to continue hitting the dot on target, he needed to modify his behavior. He had to learn to adjust his throw twenty degrees back to the left in order to compensate.

This is, in principle, similar to Will DeBello’s experiments with Barn Owls. Except instead of a dot, imagine a mouse. Instead of Beau instructing Peter, imagine the owls are receiving auditory feedback from the mouse vocalizations (i.e where the owls hear the squeak versus where the mice are actually located are at odds). In both scenarios, the organism needs to learn to adapt and modify its behavior in order to achieve his goal (hit the dot / get the mouse!) Just like the owls – Peter did, over time, learn to adapt appropriately. And just like the owls, it took him sometime to “unlearn” this behavior once the goggles came off. “Why?” Beau Lotto asks the audience, “because the brain has come to learn to see the world in a new way. It doesn’t know the glasses are off.” Yet. But eventually, Peter’s brain does learn to readjust. Okay, so the brain’s flexibility is an important reason it is capable of learning. Isn’t this old news?

Yet, it’s not just about learning – nor is it simply about making associations or detecting patterns (though, admittedly, this by itself would be pretty neat!). No, Beau went on to argue, it’s about something else: creating meaning. To demonstrate this point, he presented us with a series of implicit word completion tasks:

C n  y u  rea  t is?

You   a e not r adi g th s.

…and so on. A 1000+ people in the audience correctly guessed: “Can your read this?” then “You are not reading this.” I trust this was an easy task for you, as well. Now try:

W at  ar  ou  rea  in?

If you were like the rest of us, you guessed: “What are you reading?” … priming. It makes sense to guess such a completion especially following the other two meanings we extracted from the previous completion tasks. But it could have just as easily been: “What are you dreaming?” …but we are, of course, “colored” by our past experiences. When we receive a stimulus, we respond based on what our past experiences tell us that stimulus must mean. Not unlike this frog interacting with the “ant crusher” iphone game.

Okay, so…the brain not only learns but it does so  largely based on its repertoire of past experiences. Why is this useful? Why is learning in the long-term as important as learning in the short-term? Well, imagine if that frog had to learn every single time to stick out its tongue to grab its lunch. Imagine if we were incapable of generalizing lessons we extracted from a particular situation across other similar situations. Our biases are indeed useful adaptations. They only become a problem when we completely forget they are there altogether. They become a problem when we confuse our biases with the truth itself.

What makes us uniquely human, amongst other things, is our ability to “see ourselves see”. We are aware of the fact that we entertain two simultaneously existing realities: that which we see and that which we know. It’s what makes optical illusions so fun! Our eyes see one thing and another part of us is aware of a contradicting truth. We get to entertain two possibilities…at the same time.

So what does it mean for us as humans? Well, honestly – not much if we ignore it. If we ignore the fact that our filters exist or we “pretend away” our biases…then we are essentially cutting ourselves off from choice. Indeed, “seeing ourselves see” is another way of describing the process of awareness itself and it is only by being aware of our own biases and filters – across various domains of life – that we may be better poised to engage with our world from a wiser and more mature perspective. Or in the words of Beau Lotto:  “We have two options: either nothing is an illusion or everything is an illusion. Given this realization, we’re all pretty delusional. So…you might as well choose your delusion.”  


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