Thursday, 12 March 2015

A fox's tale

Ghostly cylinderAlways interested to see wildlife, I noted a fox nearby while waiting at a railway station recently. It vanished into nearby bushes. But then I noticed its tail was still protruding out of the bushes. With my train not due for a while, I decided to take a closer look. I went onto a bridge over the track which gave a better view of the area. But when I looked, there was no fox.

At first I thought the animal must have departed while I was walking onto the bridge. But then I noticed a line of dark purple flowers, crocuses I believe. I wondered, given their position and shape, if they might be the 'fox tail'? I returned to the platform and, yes, the 'tail' was still there. It didn't look very purple in the dull late afternoon light and was still a 'fox's tail' to me. It was clearly a misperception.

Usually, once you see a misperceived object for what it really is, the misperception no longer works. This was a rare exception. I checked again the next day and the flowers still looked like a fox's tail from the platform. Their colour was dark reddish brown though they looked purple from a nearer vantage point or when the sun shone directly on them.

Even though consciously I knew what the object was - namely crocuses - my unconsciously controlled visual perception was still being fooled! This is similar to optical illusions where we know we are seeing something unreal but can't stop seeing it.

I have come across one or two other cases of misperception persisting, despite my being consciously aware of what I was really seeing. The photo (above) is an example of this. The picture is described here. Essentially, I see a magazine with a page being turned. Even though I know this is untrue, I still see it that way. It is possible that witnesses to anomalous experiences may see a misperception repeatedly, even if they know the first occurrence was not what it appeared to be.

Sometimes witnesses to strange experiences will say things like 'I would have seen it if was there ...'. The implication is that they could not have missed an obvious natural source for what they saw. But I didn't notice the crocuses before the fox went by. Indeed, typically we don't notice much about a scene unless we study it deliberately. So statements about what a witness 'would have seen' should be treated with caution.

No comments:

Post a Comment