Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Can confusion cause paranormal reports?

BalloonI like to think I am a little more observant than most people. I am curious and take an active interest in almost everything that goes on around me. So, for instance, I DO notice the wildlife in the street that others don't. And I'm not just interested in wildlife. I notice what people are doing and changes in my local area. So the following experience left me a little embarrassed.

There is a supermarket that I visit around twice a week. I know where every product that I might ever be likely to buy is located. I was at the checkout the other day, idly waiting to be served, when something struck me. There was a gap in the checkout layout that I could not recall seeing before. I slowly realised, to my amazement, that since my previous visit just a couple of days before, the checkouts had been entirely replaced! Although they were in the same place, their shape and layout was quite different. How could I not have noticed until I'd already been standing by one for a couple of minutes?

I am, of course, aware of change blindness. But while not noticing a difference between two similar photos is at least understandable, standing in a completely changed checkout layout without realizing it is less so. My best explanation is that, because I know the shop so well, I was in a sort of autopilot state and not paying much attention. If the checkout had been moved to a completely new location, I'm sure I'd have noticed straight away. But honestly, I have no excuse. I suspect there were other regular visitors to the same shop who never noticed at all. I mentioned the change to the checkout assistant and she seemed surprised that I'd noticed.

I was fascinated by the fact that I only noticed this big change in layout by spotting a minor detail, a gap that was not there before, first. Indeed, when I first saw the gap I thought my memory was playing up and that it must always have been there. But then I noticed other differences and realised what was going on. I felt slightly confused for a second or two as I perused the new layout. Perhaps it was cognitive dissonance.

We know that misperception substitutes poorly seen objects with others from visual memory that might be expected to be present. So, my feeling of confusion was probably my brain realizing its mistake and updating its expectations. I wonder if this sort of brain state might be a factor sometimes when people report anomalous phenomena. We know about the new house effect which is largely concerned with unexpected sounds. I wonder if there is a visual equivalent when people experience drastic changes to their visual environment. Frankly, had I seen a ghost during my 'moment of confusion', it would not have surprised me in the least!

And the photo? If I'd looked at the scene shown I would never have noticed the balloon on the left side of picture. It was only because I'd seen it traverse the sky to that position that I knew what it was. We humans really don't tend to notice much!

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