Thursday, 30 January 2014

Interpretation is all

Crows in a treeRegular readers will be aware that I 'notice' myself misperceiving. We all misperceive all the time. Which is unsurprising as it is all part of normal perception. What makes it 'mis' is that some of the things we perceive are not strictly what is out there in the real physical world. The classic example is someone seeing a distant tree in low light as a human figure. Their brain substitutes the poorly-seen tree with a human figure from their own visual memory.

Most people, most of the time, never notice misperception. That's probably because what the brain is presenting to them as real is what is expected. And people rarely pay much attention to what they expect to see. It's important to understand that someone misperceiving does not see, for instance, a tree that resembles a human figure. Instead they see only a human figure and don't see the tree at all. It is little wonder, then, that misperception can give rise to ghost reports.

I was interested to know about other people's experiences of misperception. So I put an online survey form on the ASSAP website requesting other's experiences (here). There has been a steady trickle of replies ever since. I have not attempted to check the replies so any data derived from the replies must be considered in that light. People were asked to report odd things witnessed during circumstances typical of misperception circumstances, namely seeing something only in a quick glance, in difficult viewing conditions or in peripheral vision.

During an initial survey of the replies, I noticed two obvious groups among the respondents. Group 1 remained convinced that what they had seen was paranormal while Group 2 decided, after initially thinking they'd witnessed something paranormal, that it had a natural explanation. Many of the people in Group 2 later saw what their misperceived object really was. However, some decided what they'd seen was not paranormal because it vanished! And yet, many in Group 1 also had things vanishing but interpreted them as paranormal. Also, interestingly, some people in Group 1 saw something 'morph' into another, mundane, object but still thought what they were seeing was paranormal. Such 'morphing' into a mundane object is typical of misperception.

I was surprised by the contrary interpretations of objects vanishing. I would have assumed that something vanishing would be taken as an indication that it was paranormal. However, people in Group 2 took the contrary view. It was presumably based on the idea that if something vanishes, it is 'just imagination'. I was also surprised that objects 'morphing' into something else was not seen as a indicator that it was misperception. But if the person concerned is not familiar with misperception I suppose that's fair enough. Except that, some people in Group 2 decided that if an object became something mundane then it was NOT paranormal.

What we are seeing here is how personal interpretation of events can affect how a witnesses sees an incident. It could well affect whether they decide it is worth reporting at all. And that is no surprise to me at all. I suspect that whether someone believes in the paranormal or not could have a significant effect on such interpretations.

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