Sunday, March 1, 2015

Believing Is Seeing

It is said that seeing is believing. But, beliefs are NOT facts.  When someone says, "I know what I saw", it is inaccurate.  They know what they believe they saw.  Only a portion of the visual process involves the eye, the rest is perceived in the brain in a series of complex processes.  Furthermore, our expectations influence that perception.  

Studies suggest that even language and cultural expectations influence how we see our world.  Various cultures have different words and categories for colors, and actually see them differently from others.   Various experiments with the Himba tribe have supported this.  English, like many of the world's major languages, has 11 basic colors terms.  Himba has five, each covering a wider range of colors.  For example, "zoozu" is a term used for various dark colors that we would call darker blues, greens, browns, purples, reds or black. One experiment involved showing Himba subjects a color wheel of green tiles and having them pick out the one slightly different shade of green. While generally, Westerners had more difficulty selecting it, Himba subjects identified it right away.  Interestingly though, a new color wheel was presented with all green but one blue tile that was obvious to Westerners.  However, the Himba had difficulty identifying it.  (This experiment with the Himba tribe is included in the following video: )
Recently, we saw how people's perception of color varied when a picture of a dress went viral.  Some saw it as white and gold, while others saw it as blue and black.  Scientists who study color explained the discrepancy was due to how our eyes evolved to see in daylight and how our brains tried to match it to the daylight color gradient, filling in the details for us.  (Personally, I saw it as blue and gold.)

When we believe in ghosts and told a place is haunted, and then further primed with stories of specific apparitions, shadow people, or strange lights, the likelihood increases that we will misperceive what we see to fit our expectations.  Many ghost hunters still "investigate" in the dark.  While it makes for entertaining TV, it also creates so many issues hindering valid research. As I've mentioned in other posts, our eyes are not well adapted to see in the dark.  When our brains try to make sense of what our eyes see poorly in a dark environment, it "fills in" details that aren't really there.  But even in bright conditions, a person's beliefs and expectations will influence what they think they see.  Priming also explains how different people may "see" the same thing at a location.  

In another post, I mentioned watching a TV program which showed an interesting experiment at Loch Ness.  On one side of the shore, people were asked to witness the researchers launch a log into the lake.  They asked the witness to draw it.  Not surprising, they drew a straight log.  But then, the researchers asked people on the other side of the lake, who were not privy to the log launch, to draw what they saw.  Interestingly, the straight log now grew a neck and head, similar to what the Loch Ness monster reportedly looks like.  Were these people lying or dimwitted?  No, they saw a shape in the water across the lake, a group of people watching said shape, and then their expectations about the notorious location filled in the rest.

Priming also enhances pareidolia, or matrixing, in photos and videos.  How many times have we seen paranormal pictures of blobs with a caption of "little girl" or "demonic face" and then a whole lot of viewers post "I see it too!"  But in reality, there is nothing there.  We are hard wired to see faces in random patterns.   It is an evolutionary tool that helped our species survive.  To use Michael Shermer's (The Believing Brain) example, when our ancestors were strolling along a savannah and saw what looked like face within the tall grass, they immediately had to decide whether it meant danger or not.  To proceed without knowing whether it was a random pattern made by the grass or a predator, would be detrimental to survival.  Through experience, our brain evolved to err on side of caution.  

Pareidolia can make you see faces in this picture.  But one face is really there, and wants to meet you for lunch.
Source:  ArtWolfe/Caters News

In her book, Eyewitness Testimony, Elizabeth Loftus explains how our brains do not record an event like video tape.  The process is quite complex.  There are three stages of how we form memories of an event.  The first is how we perceive an event.  As discussed above, we see there are various factors which influence how we can misperceive what we see.  The next stage is retention.  During this stage, discussing, or overhearing someone else's account of the same event can unintentionally manufacture new details and dramatically change the witness's memory.  Finally, there is the retrieval stage where some time after the event, the witness is asked to recall specific details.  Obviously, if there are flaws in the first two stages, the retrieval stage will be inaccurate.  And even if the event was perceived accurately, details can be forgotten, leading to failure of retrieval.  Furthermore, the conditions at the time of retrieval influence the accuracy.  Some factors include what type of questions are asked, how the questions are worded and who is asking them.  While Loftus's book focuses on the reliability of memory in criminal cases, it can be applied to other situations, including paranormal claims.  Like witnesses of crimes, many witnesses of seemingly paranormal experiences report it caught them unexpectedly, feeling fear, and "it happened so fast", all which can increase the likelihood of misperception.

All this does not mean paranormal researchers should dismiss eyewitness accounts out of hand.  As scientific paranormal investigator Ben Radford explained in his book, Scientific Paranormal Investigation, it IS a valid starting point for an investigation.  However, if a researcher is there to conduct a productive investigation, it is important for them not to take the account at face value, because as discussed above, there are many factors complicating how people perceive and interpret experiences. Many times clients call in paranormal investigators to validate their experiences.  I've seen paranormal team websites boast things like "We believe you" or "You're not crazy, we'll help" and similar slogans.  While I agree that it is helpful to reassure a sincere client that they experienced something and aren't necessarily going bonkers, it is NOT helpful to encourage them that it was paranormal, without providing scientific, valid evidence.  When we label ourselves investigators or researchers, we should strive to understand how the human mind processes the natural world before we offer presumptions about the supernatural one.


Denise Grady, Discovery Magazine, "The Vision Thing: Mainly in the Brain"
 June 01, 1993

Rachel Adelson, American Psychological Association, 
"Hues and views: A cross-cultural study reveals how language shapes color perception."
February 2005, Vol 36, No. 2  Print version: page 26

Adam Rodgers, Wired, "The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress"
February 26, 2015

Elizabeth Luftus, Eyewitness Testimony
Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1996

Benjamin Radford, Scientific Paranormal Investigation
Corrales NM ; Rhombus Publishing Company 2010 

Michael Shermer,  The Believing Brain 
New York:  Times Books  Henry Holt and Company, LLC,  2011