Friday, 28 September 2012

I can see it, why can't you?

Sometimes I just don't see it - the ghost, that is! I examine anomalous photos all the time and I always look at them carefully before reading any accompanying text. I like to see if I can see something odd for myself. While it's generally obvious - an orb, a mist, a transparent figure - sometimes I can't see anything weird at all. Then I read the text and it might then become obvious. But sometimes, just occasionally, I still can't see anything weird, even when someone has described what it is, where it is and even put a ring around it!

Ghostly maskThere are also examples of photos where I can see something, like a face, but other people cannot. Once again, I tell them exactly where it and what it looks like, to no avail. The photo here (right) is an example of one that I can see but some others can't. Have a look and see if you can see anything odd. My 'answer' is given at this link*, but see if you can work it out first.

So what's going on here? Here are a couple of ideas I've been playing with. Firstly, in nearly all the photos where someone else can see a ghost/face/whatever that I can't, the photo has a 'problem'. By that, I mean it is over- or under-exposed, out of focus, motion blurred, has very low resolution or some other obvious photographic imperfection. That means that is hard to make out what things are in the photo, even sometimes those objects which are not thought weird! My idea is that, because as an experienced photographer I understand the limitations of such a photo, I 'know' that what I'm seeing is really noise, pixelation, blur or similar. So, even though consciously I am genuinely trying to see something weird, unconsciously my brain can literally only see noise or blur.

That led into my second idea, that this is a form of misperception. Unlike an optical illusion or simulacrum, which always works, misperception varies from person to person and even from occasion to occasion (one time you might see it, another time not). And what we see when we misperceive is generally whatever we are expecting to see. So, because I expect see noise or blur, that's what I see!

So, why do the photographers themselves see something weird in such photos? It often comes down to why they noticed something odd in the photo in the first place. In many cases, it's because they were EXPECTING to see something weird, even if only unconsciously. For instance, it might be a photo of a haunted house or of a loved one who has had dramatic recent events in their life. So the viewer might be half expecting to see a ghost in a haunted house photo, for instance. Obviously, when I first look at such photos, I'm not aware of this background, which provides another reason why I might not see what they do.

We don't normally get misperception in still photos because, unlike in videos or real life, they offer an opportunity to examine an object closely and at length, two things that tend to destroy misperception. However, the people taking the photo are usually insistent (and persistent) about what they can see, which suggests that visual substitution, characteristic of misperception, may indeed be taking place. It would take some cunning experiments to tease apart what is really going on here but my current best guess is that it really is a form of misperception. I'm sure some people may think I am being 'awkward' by not seeing what they can but perception is a lot more complex than most people imagine.

*As the link explains, I don't think the particular photo shown here is misperception, strictly speaking, because there is no visual substitution.

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