Friday, 9 May 2014

A startling animal!

Crows in a treeLeaning down, I noticed something moving nearby in my peripheral vision. It was surprising because, when I'd surveyed the scene just before, there was nothing in motion. As I turned to look at the object, I was shocked to see a lion's head protruding over a nearby bush!

Thankfully, the 'lion' quickly changed into what it really was - a plastic bag caught in the bush, inflated by the wind. The 'lion effect' appears to have come from the overall shape of the bag and the way the wind was moving it around, giving the appearance of a large mane in motion.

The lion was, of course, a misperception. I've never noticed such an unlikely misperception before. Though it is not impossible to see a lion in UK, outside a zoo it's unimaginably unlikely. There are, of course, many reports of similarly unlikely out of place animals, even including the odd lion, in this country.

This experience implies something interesting about misperception. We don't notice misperception because it usually inserts likely objects in the place of things we can't see well, so they do not command attention. It seems that, in perception, 'likely' is not restricted simply to what you might expect in any given situation. It is presumably more a question of appearance. If you see something that looks enough like a lion's head, that's what you'll see. Perception probably works like this because it learns how to process information purely from visual experience.

This aspect of misperception would explain some cryptid and UFO sightings which turn out to have mundane explanations. The witness really DID see a lion, it's just that there was no actual lion physically present, just something visually resembling one. Perception is an unconscious process so, simply knowing that you're incredibly unlikely to see a lion on the loose in the UK will not stop you misperceiving one! It is just as well perception works this way. If it didn't, the unlucky person who one day sees a real escaped lion could be in big trouble.

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