When we see we guess at the future…

by DRM

The title’s only a little bit of an exaggeration.  According to research by Mark Changizi, summarized in a great interview on Neuronarrative, what we see is our brain’s approximation of the world in a tenth of a second, not the world at the instant that we see.

Confused?  Here’s an excerpt from Changizi.

When light hits our retina, what our brains would like to do is instantaneously generate a perception of what the world looks like. Alas, our brain can’t do this instantaneously. Our brains are slow. It takes around a tenth of a second for your perception to be built, and that’s a long time when you’re moving about. If you perceived the world the way it was when light hit your eye, you’d be having a tenth-of-a-second old view of the world.

Because of this, visual systems have evolved mechanisms to try to generate a perception not of the way the world was when light hit the eye, but generate a perception of the way the world will be by the time the perception occurs in a tenth of a second. By the time the perception is elicited, the anticipated future will have arisen, and the perception will be of the present. That is, in order to perceive the present (have perceptions at time t that are of the world at time t), our visual systems must anticipate the near-future.

These mechanisms are, I argue, up and running at all times, looking for all sorts of cues in the stimulus in an attempt to guess the way the world will change in the next moment.

And this is where “tricks” come in. If we can cotton on to the cues your visual system is looking for in its attempt to guess the near future, then we can concoct artificial visual stimuli having these cues, but make sure they do not change as they “should” in the next moment. That way, when you look at them, your brain will generate a perception of what “should” happen next, but it will now be wrong due to the mad, evil psychologist.

This is a pretty cool phenomenon that in one big swoop explains deja vu — maybe you did see it, but didn’t know you saw it, just a tenth of second ago — world-class athletes — maybe the great hitters see the world as it will be in a split second — and abject terror — what if the world is completely different in a tenth of a second than you anticipated!

Changizi also has an interesting take on writing.

He wonders how it is that after just 1000 years of writing our brains can be so efficient at learning to recognize letters and words.  You would think, he suggests, that we’re evolved to read, not that reading is a late feature of our skill set.

The solution is that culture made writing easy on the eye, by shaping letters to be what the eye likes. The idea that culture shapes our artifacts to be good for us is not new. What’s new here is a specific hypothesis for what writing should look like in order to be good for us.

To be easy on the eye, writing needs to “look like nature,” just what our illiterate visual systems are fantastically competent at processing. The trick of that research direction was making this “writing looks like nature” idea rigorous, and coming up with ways of testing it. I show that there are certain signature visual patterns found in nearly any natural environment with opaque objects strewn about, and that these signature patterns are found in human writing. In short, writing has evolved so that written words look like visual objects.

All I can think about is trees.  Wouldn’t it be hilarious is people who live in climates with a winter, where they see de-nuded trees for longer periods, were able to learn to read more quickly.

That’s not scientific.  But it’s an amusing thought.

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