Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Why simulacra rarely cause misperception

SimulacrumI was thinking of using 'a fold in the fabric of time' as a random title for this post to make it sound really exciting.

Anyway, just to be clear, the kind of simulacrum I'm talking about here is an object which, by chance, resembles something quite different. So it might include things like an apparent face or human figure, for instance, appearing in vegetation, clouds, a rock formation or some other object. In the photo (right) I think the rock formation resembles a camel with the head of a monkey. Others may not see it but you get the general idea. Simulacra are not limited to faces or figures but these appear to be the commonest examples.

The most important single point about simulacra is that they only resemble something else. If I look at the photo here I don't actually SEE a monkey's face, I see a rock formation that resembles one. This is quite different to misperception where the object being misperceived is substituted for another one in our brains. We don't see a tree that vaguely resembles a human figure, we only see the substituted figure. In fact, we don't see the original tree at all!

But here's the puzzle. A witness may easily misperceive a poorly-seen tree as a human figure. And yet, the same person would never misperceive a rock formation like the one in the photo as a monkey's face. Even if they agree that it looks like a monkey's faced, they only ever see a rock formation. So why do objects which quite strongly resemble something else, simulacra, seldom get misperceived?

Well, consider the 'monkey face' rock in the photo. If you were standing in front of it, even in poor viewing conditions, you would never misperceive it as a real monkey's face. That's because it is far too large to be a real monkey's face! In my experience, you only misperceive objects when they are at the correct scale. Also, you tend to misperceive objects in places where you might reasonably expect to see them. So, a large plant in a window might be seen outside as someone looking out because it is roughly the right scale and position.

Of course, there are sometimes simulacra that do, by chance, happen to be roughly the right size as the object they resemble and these may well be misperceived, in the right viewing conditions. However, many simulacra are completely the wrong size and in a place where the object they resemble would never be seen.

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