Monday, 25 March 2013

The lies we never stop believing!

Manipulated photoFlicking through a magazine I noted the title of an article, in bold type, that I wanted to read later. It concerned a place I knew well. When I came to find the article again later, I could not! It had vanished! What I DID find was an article with an almost identical title except in one important respect. The place name in the title was different, somewhere I knew but nowhere near as well. The names did have a lot in common. They both started with the same letter and ended in the suffix 'borough'. One name had 4 letters as a prefix while the other had 5. So, as you can see, visually they looked similar even though geographically the places were quite different.

This was a typically dramatic example of misperception. For someone who has never seen such a thing happen, it can sound trivial - a minor case of 'imagination' or 'hallucination', perhaps. It is neither. I didn't see something that resembled the familiar place name, I saw it as clearly as the words around it (which remained the same in both viewings). It did not change at all as I was looking at it for the second or two before I flicked to the next page. I was genuinely puzzled when I failed to find the article again.

Misperception is the lie that our brains tell us that we just keep on believing. Even after we've seen a demonstration of how unreliable our visual perception really is. I think this powerful lie is why we find those many weird experiences caused by misperception so compelling. The only alternative to believing we've seen something paranormal is to distrust our own sight, the sense we rely on over all others. And that's a very disturbing idea.

By contrast, people's reaction to anomalous photos is increasingly to distrust them! When people say 'photographs don't lie', it is now usually ironic. The reason for this is that everyone knows that digital photography has made it incredibly simple to manipulate photos (like the one above right) and videos. In fact, my own detailed examination of thousands of anomalous photos shows that very few are manipulated. The vast majority of weird photos turn out to be photographic artefacts.

So we are now in the bizarre position where we implicitly trust our own visual perception, which lies to us habitually, while distrusting photos which are actually manipulated a lot less than we believe. I think this incredibly strong trust of our untrustworthy visual perception helps generate many paranormal reports. We'd rather believe we've seen something weird than admit to the possibility that our brain lies to us.

There is an excellent reason why the brain lies - to speed up visual processing. If we waited for a perfect picture of what was going on all around us, we could not react quickly enough to possible dangers. And a kinder word than 'lie' would be 'short-cut'. Our brain gives its best guess, when there isn't sufficient information available to determine something definitively. And that is vital to help us to survive and thrive. The unwanted side effect, however, is that we sometimes 'experience' things that are not actually objectively real. Like me momentarily seeing a familiar place name in a magazine, instead of the one that was actually there.

So next time you interview a witness who insists that they saw something paranormal when, it seems highly likely to you to have been a misperception, think carefully. If they ask your opinion, and you give it, don't expect them to necessarily accept it. In a very real sense they DID see what they say they saw. It's just that what they saw might not have actually been present at the time in any objective sense.

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