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The science of seeing differently

by Beau Lotto

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Uncertainty is the problem that our brains have evolved to solve. We needed to predict what was making a noise in the dark so we could survive it if it was a danger.

We are constantly processing ambiguous info, and then our brain narrows down the possible interpretations to one. And that response is often wrong bc we project meaning on to them. (Classic example of 'Receptionist Syndrome', where a guy misinterprets a woman-in-business professional friendliness as sexual interest).

People don't come with an IKEA instruction manual - you have to work everything out by trial and error.

We think of 'pain' as localised at the injury site, but it's not - it's all happening in your brain. The brain is interpreting evidence from it's receptors and translating that into action: 'get away from here!'. And this has a lot to do with how brain works: only a little bit is actually sensory; mostly it's interpretation.

Imagining things visually is no different at all from actually seeing them. You can apply mental imagery to every area of your life.

Imagined perceptions turn into reality, which we usually only notice when they become locked into negative feeling cycles.

Dr Richard Wiseman research showed that 'lucky' people have similar constellation of attributes - optimists who believe life will work out well in the end, are open to new experiences, don't ruminate on disappointing outcomes, have a relaxed approach to life, and look at mistakes as learning opportunities.

People who wore a white lab coat while doing mental exercises performed better than those wearing street clothes. And they did better if they were told it was a doctor's white coat than if it was a painter's coat. Shows that not only do we make assumptions about others by how they are dressed, we project expectations onto ourselves, that directly affect our behaviour.

Old argument of Nature v Nurture is wrong. It's not one or the other, or some sort of mixture of the two, it's the constant interaction between them. Genes give us a rough outline of how brain should be built, and within those limitations the environment shapes the process.

Your brain uses experiences to acquire as many guiding assumptions as it can in the hope of finding general principles that can be applied across contexts. We think a fear of heights is just common sense, but we aren't born with it. Babies don't have a fear response when confront a 'visual cliff' expt. We only acquire that from experience - either falling off the top bunk or having our parents yell at us.

The Physics of No: we work off Assumptions. Assumptions are result of our trial-and-error experiences, and they limit what we can do.

(New Scientist)

'One way to change future perceptions is to rewire the meanings associated with past experiences'

"THE doubt-driven ride this book will take you on is going to physically change your brain," claims Beau Lotto early in Deviate. He wants to change our brains by making us reassess the reality we perceive.

The book draws on his research at University College London, where he studies perception, and his work at the Lab of Misfits at London's Science Museum – an exhibition creating experiences designed to alter how and what our brains perceive.

To this end, Deviate plays with the book's design: some words get larger fonts (making the page look like a word cloud), and occasionally pages are upside down, or columns of text run diagonally across. The intent is to shake up our very experience of reading.

The idea that our perceptions don't mirror objective, external reality is not new. People with neuropsychological conditions provide stark evidence that we can perceive things that really aren't there. The question is whether everyday perception is also questionable.

Deviate takes sides, aiming to convince that normal perception is also suspect. As Lotto says,''We're all like Alice all the time... except that we didn't have to drop through the rabbit hole. We're already deep inside it.' And he tries myriad ways to show us that. There's the delicious story of Goethe's ill-advised odyssey to undermine Newton's theory of light with his own theory of colour. Goethe got it wrong because 'like most of us, he took for granted that he saw reality'.

Then there's Michel Eugène Chevreul, a French chemist who showed why the colours of the tapestries displayed in the Paris showrooms of the 1820s ('rich burgundies, grassy greens, sun-kissed golds') looked so different in the homes of customers. The perception of a colour has to do with the colours surrounding it - reality is constructed in the mind.

That's the key idea: perception is the outcome of the brain trying to make predictions, based on experiences and assumptions that are either hardwired (over evolutionary time) or that accumulate during individual lifetimes. If we have to change ourselves, for whatever reason, the the first challenge is to accept everything you do is a reflex grounded in your assumptions', writes Lotto.

He reveals how to see things differently, with some tantalising insights. For instance, if your perceptions are the result of what your brain has experienced and the meanings attributed to these experiences, one way to change your future perceptions is to use the power of thought and imagination to rewire those associated meanings.

Unfortunately, the book rarely gets stuck in for long. So in the section on changing our past to influence our future, he writes:'Governments - especially totalitarian ones - and their spin doctors understand the power of re-meaning history'. But in two paragraphs, he has moved on to big data.

Deviate can wander into pop psychology, as when Lotto talks about how living purposeful, creative lives means having to embrace uncertainty. He even dispenses relationship advice: "Waking ... with another needs to be like seeing a sunrise."

In the end, Deviate can't quite make up its mind if it's about the neuroscience of perception or helping us change our lives using neuroscience. The tension is best illustrated when Lotto discusses how hard it was to apply his neuroscientific knowledge to make sense of an illness causing him neurological problems: 'You know too much and nothing.'

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