Are you sure you’re seeing reality? (Richard Wiseman)

December 27, 2012

Brilliant Richard Wiseman short.

TAM London 2009: Richard Wiseman's tricks

TAM London 2009: Richard Wiseman’s tricks (Photo credit: prokrastinuft)

In a time when about half of Americans incorrectly believe the national government is “broke,” and a similar number believe that government should aid rich people but not poor people, and an astonishing number believe that Americans will stop working if they don’t get tax breaks fast, we might want to question whether we’re seeing things realistically.

Wiseman shows how our view may be distorted:

So, we should wonder:  How can we tell whether our views are distorted?

And:  Are our views distorted?  How can we account for that, or amend it?

More:


Optical illusions, and “Bloody Mary” images

October 24, 2010

Take a look at this.  Focus on the “+” in the middle, and describe what you see.

Troxler Effect, the purple chaser

Troxler Effect image

No, the purple dots don’t disappear, though that’s probably what you “see.”  Worse, there’s no green dot.  Your brain sees green when the purple disappears — and even when your brain refuses to let you know the purple dots are still there, it will tell you you see a green dot when the purple dots you can’t see, disappear.

So, is it so hard to understand that people might see weird things in the mirror, if they stare at their own faces for a while?

Cortical Hemming and Hawing has the full story, with a history of the Bloody Mary story.  Go see.


No one believes it. Is it so?

August 9, 2008

One of the great mysteries of history is how an entire nation of people can follow a leader into tragedy — a stupid war, economic morass, cultural suicide, genocide, or other tragedy — without appearing to notice they were going against their national values, against reason, against morality.

I wonder if part of the answer can be found by studying the way our brains perceive things, in particular, the way our brains force us to see things that are not so.

Some things are just so unbelievable, our brains tell us we’re seeing something different, something more believable. Here are two examples, the Charlie Chaplin mask illusion, and the Einstein mask illusion.

Chaplin — you know it’s concave, but the nose sticks out every time:

Einstein — is Big Brother really watching you? What do your eyes say?

Here’s a nasty little kicker: Even when most people know that it’s an illusion, they can’t perceive the illusion-in-action; as Paul Simon wrote, “Still a man sees what he wants to see and he disregards the rest.”

Historical applications

  • CIA chief William Colby was involved in Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War. When investigations revealed that the operation involved torture, many people refused to believe the U.S. would be involved in torture (good!). And even after he admitted to Congressional committees that he had personally authorized the torture, people had difficulty believing it. David Wise wrote an article about Operation Phoenix for the New York Times Magazine, July 1, 1973: “Not one of Colby’s friends or neighbors, or even his critics on the Hill, would, in their wildest imagination, conceive of Bill Colby attaching electric wires to a man’s genitals and personally turning the crank. “Not Bill Colby… He’s a Princeton man.'”
  • “[T]he Russians are finished. They have nothing left to throw against us,” a confident Adolf Hitler told Gen. Franz Halder in July 1941. Russian mired down the German army, making the phrase “the Eastern Front” a dreaded death sentence in German commands. In the end, it was the Soviet Army that first got to Berlin, and captured Hitler’s command bunker where der Führer had committed suicide a short time before. Adding to the historic irony, twice over: First, Stalin refused to believe his intelligence service reports that the Nazis were massing on the border of Russia, just two years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which pledged neither nation would invade the other. Second, Hitler’s generals had studied Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, working to avoid all the mistakes Napoleon made. So sure were the Nazis of their superiority to Napoleon in every way, they invaded Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion, June 22, 1941. Great shades of Santayana’s Ghost!
  • Bush administration historians will wonder why Bush was able to do what he did, with even members of his own party who saw him close up believing he’d do something different. See this story by Ron Susskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, based on an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam.  (See also documents from the National Security Agency archives.)
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

Do you have other examples of self-delusion by illusionary means?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Vous Pensez.


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