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aeraeber's picture

Reading Between the Lines

People tend to have trouble explaining why they like a particular song or painting. They are hearing or seeing something that is completely unique to them, and certainly isn’t what the artist heard or saw. There are probably common threads; it’s unlikely that one person would see a pink flamingo on a lake where another person would see a black and white map of the London Underground, for example. Still, the vast differences in emotional response to art imply that there are also large differences in perception of it.

The evidence that what we perceive is a construction of the brain rather than an exact representative of an external reality is rather strong. The brain provides multiple interpretations of ambiguous figures, like those in classic optical illusions, and interprets know objects as the same color in different lighting situations. Though it seems strange at first that information gets thrown away before it reaches the brain, it actually makes sense to have a mental picture that is useful rather than completely accurate. If objects and people looked different in changing lighting conditions, it would be impossible to give directions or recognize people from their pictures. What we respond, what determines behavior, isn’t “reality” but the informed guess the unconscious part of our brain makes. This helps explain why people react differently to the same stimuli. The fact that some people are afraid of heights or electric storms while others are fascinated by them may have something to do with the fact that the unconscious parts of their nervous systems make different guesses, so they perceive different things. We’ll never know, of course, exactly what another person is seeing, hearing, etc, but knowing that it isn’t exactly what we perceive is important in interacting effectively with them.  All of this leaves almost as many questions as it provides potential answers. Why are all of our informed guesses so seemingly similar? That is, how are we able to know what someone else is talking about when they describe the world? How did our system of filling in the outlines develop? Is the fact that we don’t easily notice when someone changes something about their appearance, like their hair or glasses, related to our reliance on mental pictures and filling in the lines?



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