HOW WE CONSTRUCT OUT OWN REALITY
It might be hard to believe, but the two dark tables have the exact same dimensions! Measure both table surfaces with a ruler and prove it to yourself. Why, then, does the table on the left look elongated, while the table on the right appears to have a wider width? The illusion of two tables was first discovered by Roger Shepard at Stanford University.
It comes down to how we perceive the scene. Accustomed as we are to photography and Western art, we automatically interpret the scene as three-dimensional. The concept of perspective, first mastered by artists during the Renaissance, is one we encounter in our everyday lives, and our brains automatically assume that the further away an object is from us, the smaller it will be. To compensate, our brain interprets and “lengthens” lines that appear to be pointing away from us into the distance. In this scene, the interpretation made by our brain extends the length of the table on the left by making it appear longer and the shorter side of the right-hand table by making it appear wider. Our brain constructs what we perceive based on our past experiences rather than what is there.
People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses.
THE CLASSIC TEASER OF THE MIRROR
Noble laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote about the classic teaser of the mirror. Why, Feynman wondered, does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, why are the letters of a book backward but not upside down, and why would Feynman’s double behind the mirror appear to have a mole on the wrong hand?
Imagine yourself standing before the mirror, he suggested, with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its head is up. Its west hand lies to the west. Its feet are down. Everything’s really all right.
The problem is on the axis running through the mirror. Your nose and the back of your head are reversed: if your nose points north, your double’s nose points south. The problem now is psychological. We think of our image as another person. We cannot imagine ourselves “squashed” back to front, so our brains imagine ourselves turned left and right, as if we had walked around a pane of glass to face the other way.
It is in this psychological turnabout the brain makes that make us believe that left and right are switched.
This is another example that shows the extraordinary extent to which the information obtained by an observer depends upon the observer’s own assumptions and preconceptions. We cannot imagine our image squashed so we construct a reality that assumes an image of ourselves as if we walked around the pane of glass.
This is not a parrot. If you study it closely with an open mind, you will discover it is actually a woman. Johannes Stötter, a fine art body painter, used breathable paint to painstakingly turn a woman into the image of a parrot brushstroke by brushstroke. The model’s arm forms the parrot’s head and beak, and her legs form the wing and tail feathers. Study it carefully and you will see the woman. Once you see her the bird will disappear.
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
MICHAEL MICHALKO is the author of Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), which the Wall Street Journal reported “will change the way you think.” He is also the author of Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Geniuses) which describes the common thinking strategies creative geniuses have used in the sciences, art, and industry throughout history and shows how we can apply them to become more creative in our business and personal lives. In addition, he created Thinkpak (A Brainstorming Card Set), which is a novel creative-thinking tool that is designed to facilitate brainstorming sessions. Michael’s most recent book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work focuses on how creative geniuses combine and conceptually blend dissimilar subjects create original thoughts and ideas. http://www.creativethinking.net