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Obsession with Perception


“Humans see what they want to see.”

― Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

It took a long time for me to realize that simple fact….that people make the choice to
see and believe what they see….they also interpret these things into
reality…whatever that means.

I would like to approach this article from a personal perspective; it has been my
personal experience avoiding many common perceptual situations that seem to
allow for easy predictive results…. (Aka I don’t follow people, trends, etc). So let’s
begin with what I perceive to be the best way possible, I’ll try not to bore you to

Merriam-Webster defines “perception” as “awareness of the elements of

environment through physical sensation” and “quick, acute, and intuitive cognition.”
Realistically, some of you may have never used this term in your life, and that’s
perfectly fine. However, it is safe to say that we are all a product of our perceptions
(and environment, although sometimes that is not the case) and potentially others
perception of us. Perception is a powerful, odorless, colorless entity; similar to “time”
in where it affects us and how we live our lives through the illusion that we can
control it. The truth is we cannot, we can ignore, and or avoid but controlling how you
view and are viewed is a real-time circumstance.

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a

given time is a function of power and not truth.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

The way we interpret the world and its contents obviously varies from person to
person; this thought does meet resistance when we deal with individuals who may
be strong of opinion or have a commanding presence. People tend to ignore their
inherited intuition when among others who have (self-imposed) powerful stances on
what they see in here; we call these people “popular.” We follow what they follow,
eat, dress, read (I’m reaching here) say, do and so on. We believe what these
individuals say because…well…it LOOKS like it is correct; lest we forget opinion not
reinforced by facts and evidence to its validity is hollow. Do we understand the power
of perception yet?

The perception here is that if you follow the stronger individual’s perceptions and
views, you become strong by default. All my life I was led to believe this was how the
world works, until I started to ask “why.” After being told I was weak for not
conforming, I also started to understand how much perception really IS NOT reality. I
also discovered what powerful perceptions would not allow – power of self- and the
ability to rotate my perceptions away from environmental indoctrinations.

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
― Wayne W. Dyer

People are afraid of change, but have you ever looked at someone after their
perception was transformed via broken stereotype, epiphany, or just growth of
self? We all are raised (or not) in certain manners, we venture out of the house in our
adolescent years, we see the world our parent(s) may have warned us about only to
find out the warnings were true (you never know) untrue, or way worse (a matter of
perception ah-gain). At this point in time we are at a crossroads on how to view our
lives, from the perception of an individual or a conformist who flows within group
think. This is not saying that having friends and agreeing with them on how things
are seen is bad, but remember how the odd man/woman out was perceived by the

I entered adulthood with this “odd person out “mentality because of several factors;
these catalysts allowed me to spin the kaleidoscope of life which I am thankful for
(but this is not totally about me). Being around people has given me the opportunity
to witness my thoughts on perception manifest themselves in front of me. It has also
shown me much despair in the form of people controlled by and obsessed with
perception; whether self-perception or how they are perceived. This is where my
belief is that we need to change.

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein

“We know so little about one another. We embrace a shadow and love a
― Hjalmar Söderberg, Doctor Glas

“Small is the number of people who see with their eyes and think with their
― Albert Einstein

“It’s much easier on the emotions when one sees life as an experiment rather
than a struggle for popularity.”
― Criss Jami

My selection of quotes for this op-ed is not a random occurrence. We are surrounded
by so much stimuli that our perception of the world often becomes our reality; we
then become trapped by these perceptions. I guess my overall point in the midst of
this long-winded thought is that once we realize that perception is a control
mechanism, we now become in control. It is ok to see the world differently, and form
different opinions then others, eat different foods & dress differently. Most of all, it is
ok to think different, and outside the box in some cases. Perception
is only everything if you do not have control of your own perceptions.

My life has brought me to this point, at this table, with this glass of whiskey, and my
thoughts on perception and life. As I write this I remember a question and two
statements that have shaped my view of perception….

If life was meant to be a one-shot deal (leaving religious beliefs out), ask yourself
why you shouldn’t see your life from your perspective?

Don’t be afraid to turn the dial on your kaleidoscope…and the cynicisms of what you
see is life’s way of steering your perceptions the way your personality demands…

…and remember

We take it for granted that we see the world as it actually is, but in fact, we do not. Our
perception of the world is the brain's best guess at what is actually happening, based on the
information it receives through the senses. Optical illusions clearly demonstrate that the brain
does not always interpret sensory information correctly, by producing a discrepancy between
what we see and and how we perceive.

These discrepancies usually occur because the visual information is incomplete and the brain
has to fill in the gaps. But our perceptions can be influenced by many factors, even under
normal circumstances – we know, for example, that how we feel affects what we see, and that
music affects how we perceive facial expressions.

A new study now shows that visual working memory can influence our perceptions, so that
mental images in the mind's eye can alter the way we see things.
Working memory refers to our ability to hold and manipulate limited amounts of information
for a short period of time. This information is usually relevant to the task at hand – when
making a phone call, for example, you might repeat the number to yourself several times until
you have dialled it; once you've dialled the number, you stop the repetition and then quickly
forget it. In exactly the same way, visual working memory allows us to retain visual
information as mental images in the mind's eye.

Two previous studies, published in 2009, showed that the contents of visual working memory
are represented in a region of the brain devoted to vision, and can be predicted accurately by
decoding the activity in that region. These findings suggest that the brain mechanisms
responsible for perception and working memory are closely linked, and prompted Min-Suk
Kang and his colleagues at Vanderbilt's Visual Cognition Neuroscience Lab to investigate
whether information retained in visual working memory can change the appearance of the
things we see.

To do so, they used an optical illusion called motion repulsion, in which the angle between
two objects moving in different directions appears to be exaggerated. The participants were
shown two patterns of moving dots, one after the other and each moving in a different
direction, and told that they had to remember the direction in which the first one was moving.
They were then asked to judge whether the motion of the second pattern was clockwise or
counterclockwise, relative to the first, and to indicate the direction of motion of the first

The participants consistently reported that they perceived a clockwise-shift in the direction of
the second pattern. One possible explanation for these findings is that they were caused by a
motion after-effect. Motion after-effects occur after looking at a moving stimulus for several
seconds and then shifting your gaze to a stationary one, which then appears to move in the
opposite direction to the first. But the patterns of dots were shown for just half a second,
which is not long enough to produce an after-effect; furthermore, an after-effect would be
expected to produce the illusion that the second pattern of dots is moving in the opposite
direction to the first, which was not the case.

The researchers performed several variations of the experiment to rule out other possible
explanations, such as involuntary eye movements and visual priming, and reached the
conclusion that the contents of working memory can contaminate perceptual processes. The
participants had to remember the first pattern of dots, and retained a mental image of its
direction of motion in their visual working memory. This mental representation altered their
perceptions of the second pattern, by "pushing" the motion of the dots away from the true

The study provides evidence that visual working memory and perception interact with each
other, and this may be because the same brain machinery is co-opted for both processes. The
earlier work seems to confirm this by showing that the contents of visual working memory
are encoded in the visual cortex and can be retained there for several seconds.

The findings may have important practical implications for everyday life. For example, we
often rehash mental imagery while engaging in visually guided tasks such as driving. This
study suggests that doing so may interfere with our ability to register and react to objects in
our visual field.

Kang, M-N, et al (2011) Visual working memory contaminates perception. Psychonomic
Bulletin Review. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-011-0126-5

How Thinking Works: 10 Brilliant

Cognitive Psychology Studies
Everyone Should Know

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How experts think, the power of framing, the miracle of attention, the weird
world of cognitive biases and more…

Fifty years ago there was a revolution in psychology which changed the way we think about
the mind.

The ‘cognitive revolution’ inspired psychologists to start thinking of the mind as a kind of
organic computer, rather than as an impenetrable black box which would never be

This metaphor has motivated psychologists to investigate the software central to our everyday
functioning, opening the way to insights into how we think, reason, learn, remember and
produce language.

Here are 10 classic cognitive psychology studies that have helped reveal how thinking works.

1. How experts think

Without experts the human race would be sunk. But what is it about how experts think which
lets them achieve breakthroughs which we can all enjoy?
The answer is in how experts think about problems, compared with novices.

That’s what Chi et al. (1981) found when they compared how experts and novices
represented physics problems.

Novices tended to get stuck thinking about the surface details of the problem whereas experts
saw the underlying principles that were operating.

It was partly this deeper, abstract way of approaching problems that made the experts more

2. Short-term memory lasts 15-30 seconds

Short-term memory is a lot shorter than many think.

In fact it lasts about 15-30 seconds.

We know that because of a classic cognitive psychology study carried out by Lloyd and
Margaret Peterson (Peterson & Peterson, 1959).

Participants had to try and remember and recall three-letter strings, like FZX.

When tested, after 3 seconds they could recall 80% of them, after 18 seconds, though, they
could only remember 10%.

That’s how short-term short-term memory is.

3. Not logical

People find formal logic extremely difficult to cope with–that’s normal.

Here’s a quick test for you, and don’t be surprised if your brain overheats:

“You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side
and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown.
Which card(s) must you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card
shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?”

The answer is you have to turn over the ‘8’ and the brown card (for an explanation Google
“Wason selection task”–even after hearing it, many people still can’t believe this is the
correct answer).

If you got it right, then you’re in the minority (or you’ve seen the test before!). When Wason
conducted this classic experiment, less than 10% of people got it right (Wason, 1968).

Our brains are not set up for this kind of formal logic.
4. The power of framing

The way you frame a problem, argument or statement can have huge effects on how people
perceive it.

Think about risk for a moment and the fact that people don’t like to take chances.

They dislike taking chances so much that even the whiff of negativity is enough to send
people running for the hills.

That’s what Kahneman and Tversky (1981) demonstrated when they asked participants to
imagine 600 people were affected by a deadly disease.

There was, they were told, a treatment, but it is risky. If you decided to use the treatment,
here are the odds:

“A 33% chance of saving all 600 people, 66% possibility of saving no one.”

When told this, 72% of people thought it was a good bet.

But, when presented the problem this way:

“A 33% chance that no people will die, 66% probability that all 600 will die.”

…the number choosing it dropped to 22%

The beauty of the study is that the outcomes are identical, it’s just the framing that’s different.

The way we think is heavily influenced by the terms in which issues are expressed.

5. Attention is like a spotlight

We actually have two sets of eyes–one set real and one virtual.

We have the real eyes moving around in their sockets, but we also have ‘virtual eyes’ looking
around our field of vision, choosing what we pay attention to.

People are using their virtual eyes all the time: for example, when they watch each other
using their peripheral vision.

You don’t need to look directly at an attractive stranger to eye them up, you can look ‘out of
the corner of your eye’.

Psychologists have called this the ‘spotlight of attention’ and studies have actually measured
its movement. It means we can notice things in the fraction of a second before our eyes have
a chance to reorient.

→ Read on: The Attentional Spotlight

6. The cocktail party effect

It’s not just vision which has a kind of spotlight, our hearing is also finely tuned.

It’s like when you’re at a cocktail party and you can tune out all the voices, except the person
you’re talking to.

Or, you can tune out the person you’re talking to you and eavesdrop on a more interesting
conversation behind.

A beautiful demonstration of this was carried out in the 1950s by Cherry (1953).

He found that people could even distinguish the same voice reading two different messages at
the same time.

→ Read on: The Cocktail Party Effect

7. Where’s the duck?

If you take a toy duck and show it to a 12-month-old infant, then put your hand under a
cushion, leave the duck there and bring your hand out, the child will only look in your hand,
almost never under the cushion.

At this age children behave as though things they can’t see don’t even exist.

As the famous child psychologist Jean Piaget noted:

“The child’s universe is still only a totality of pictures emerging from nothingness at the
moment of action, to return to nothingness at the moment when the action is finished.”

And yet, just six months later, a child will typically look under the cushion. It has learnt that
things that are hidden from view can continue to exist.

This is just one miracle amongst many in child development.

8. The McGurk effect

The brain is integrating information from all our senses to produce our experience.

This is brilliantly revealed by the McGurk effect (McGurk & MacDonald, 1976).

Watch the following clip from a BBC documentary to see the effect in full. You won’t
believe it until you see and hear it yourself. The sensation is quite odd:

9. Implanting false memories

People sometimes think of their memories as being laid down, then later either recalled or
forgotten, with little change in the memories themselves between the two.
In fact, the reality is much more complex and, in some cases, alarming.

One of the most dramatic studies that demonstrated memories can be changed, or even
implanted later, was carried out by Elizabeth Loftus.

In her study, a childhood memory of being lost in a mall was successfully implanted in some
people’s mind, despite their families confirming nothing like it had ever happened to them.

Later studies have found that 50% of participants could have a false memory successfully

→ Read on: Implanting False Memories: Lost in the Mall & Paul Ingram

10. Why the incompetent don’t know they’re incompetent

There all kinds of cognitive biases operating in the mind.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, though, is a favourite because it explains why incompetent

people don’t know they’re incompetent.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger found in their studies that people who are the most
incompetent are the least aware of their own incompetence.

At the other end of the scale, the most competent are most aware of their own shortcomings.

→ Explore more: Cognitive Biases: Why We Make Irrational Decisions

→ Find out more about what dilated pupils means.

Image credit: Saad Faruque