Thursday, 26 March 2015

Can you see the impossible?

Crows in a treeIt is rare to get a misperception that can be readily reproduced. So when an example comes along, like the door ghost, it is ideal for testing theories. The latest instance is the 'motionless escalator handrails' discussed in the last two blog posts. Briefly, I can sometimes see the black handrails of escalators appear perfectly motionless, even though there is plenty of evidence that they are moving normally. It gave me the idea that I might be able to see something impossible.

I realised that there was a statement I made in the last blog post that was not quite accurate. I said, of misperception, that you either get one interpretation (of a misperceived scene) or another, never both and you do not see them change. To clarify, what I usually see is one object change instantly into another. What I DON'T see is a gradual transformation, which is what I should have said. I have discussed how misperceptions can be seen to 'break' here.

the point is this - my brain appears to stop me seeing something 'impossible', like a misperceived human figure slowly rearranging itself into the tree it actually is. I see only credible object or the other. It occurred to me that the handrail misperception gave me the chance to test this idea to destruction. Could I persuade my brain to actually see the 'impossible'?

So I went and watched some escalators again. I found a section of the handrail that appeared totally motionless from my viewpoint and waited. I was waiting for someone to use the escalator with their hand on the handrail. Would I see a hand being carried along by a motionless handrail which is, of course, impossible? Or would the handrail suddenly decide it was moving after all? I really had no idea which I would see. I saw several examples, all with same result.

One problem I should have anticipated, but didn't, was that people on the escalator would cause a change in lighting on the handrail. This messed up the misperception, invalidating the experiment. I adjusted my viewpoint to get an angle where there was no lighting change as a person went by. Finally, I managed to see what I was looking for. The handrail remained motionless! So I saw someone's hand being pulled along by a seemingly motionless handrail. It was like spotting a poorly executed special effect in a movie. Except this was real life!

So there you have it. Our brains can, in the right circumstances, show us something which is plainly impossible. So how do we distinguish such bizarre 'impossible' misperceptions from something truly paranormal?

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