Thursday, 5 September 2013

Shape shifting for beginners

Bird and planeI glanced at the small group of people, briefly, as I was walking down the road. All I noticed was that there were two adults and two children and that one of the adults was wearing a T-shirt with a highly distinctive motif. I wouldn't have looked again had I not been stuck watching traffic while trying to cross the busy road. I was shocked to see that it was one of the children, not an adult, who was actually wearing the distinctive T-shirt! Shocked but not dismayed. It has, after all, happened before!

There have been previous occasions when I've noticed some detail about a group of objects (not always people) which I've glanced at briefly, only to realise, following a longer look, that I'd made a crucial perceptual mistake. Specifically, I've 'transferred' the features of one object in the group to another! It's always the same - a quite particular 'perceptual glitch'. It involves groups of fairly similar objects, glimpsed for only for a second or two, close together in my visual field. I do wonder how widespread this particular perceptual glitch is. No doubt psychologists have a name for it! To me, it appears to be a very specific class of 'glance misperception'.

So far, all the examples I've experienced have been of objects at around the same distance from me. I don't know if objects merely in line of sight, but at radically different distances, might be similarly affected. It seems likely as they are close together visually. If the brain can't, from a quick glance, sort out correctly who is wearing a T-shirt then I doubt it can decide how far they are away either. One of the impressive features of this latest example was that the the T-shirt needed to be 'resized' to be transferred perceptually from a child to an adult. Clearly, significant 'shape shifting' is not a problem to this kind of misperception.

The sort of perceptual glitch described here could easily affect, or even be the main driver behind, reports of the paranormal. Attributes of one object could be 'transferred' to another visually adjacent, giving it an anomalous appearance. And a later, more prolonged, examination of the same object will see it 'resume' its real appearance. This could, therefore, offer a clue to how some objects may appear to 'shape shift' in certain reports. It is important in such cases to see if the object was viewed continuously and, if not, whether the initial sighting was brief and maybe with a group of other things.

Here's an imaginary scenario I've dreamt up. Suppose a plane is flying behind a group of birds, in the same line of sight. Someone who glanced up at the group for a second might misattribute a bird shape onto the plane. Then, if they looked up again at the plane a little later, it would look normal. Is it just a plane, the witness might ask themselves? Or a shape-shifting UFO?

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