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That One Spooky Thing (part 3) February 13, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches.
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OK, back on the subject of “You no longer believe, but there’s this one thing that happened that you can’t explain, and makes you think there’s something to all this supernatural stuff”

My list of suggested explanations looks like this, and I’ve covered the first three entries in the prior posts (linked below):

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
  • It’s technological
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
  • It’s “supernatural”

The fourth item on the list, faulty perception and faulty memory, is such a big topic that I’m going to write more than one post on it.

Faulty Perception

We think we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, but we really don’t.  We actually do all that stuff with our brain.  Our sensory organs just transmit signals, and it’s not until they reach the brain that we put them together into something coherent.  The problem is that our brain is not perfect at doing this, and sometimes it messes up.  Sometimes it perceives things that aren’t really there, or perceive them as something other than what they are.

Let’s start with some visual mistakes.

See the square?

Square Illusion

Sure!  Except look again.  There’s only circles with wedges missing, there’s no square.  Your brain is filling in the square.  And we can’t help doing this, our brain takes an indication of something familiar and fills in the rest.

Here’s an old one – a bunch of black smudges, right?  See anything?  No?

cow

.

.

.

How about now?

cow outlined

Now you should see the cow facing you.  But can you unsee it?  Go back to the first picture and try to see it as just meaningless smudges again.  You probably can’t.  Once your brain has decided that there’s a meaningful image, it locks in on it and that’s hard to change.  Lets do another one:

Here’s a bunch of black splotches.  See anything?

Dalmatian

.

.

.

How about now – see the Dalmatian facing away from you and to the left?  As before, once you see it, go back to the first picture and try to unsee it.

Dalmatian outlined

Let’s see how this plays out when we’re thinking about that “one spooky thing.”  Here’s a hill on Mars.  One of thousands of hills of random shape on Mars.  Nothing special:

Mars Butte

But in one photo, when the lighting happened to be just right, and a random dot of camera noise fell in the right place, it looked like this:

mars face

Wow!  Suddenly this is evidence of intelligent life!  Except that the intelligence is only on this side of the camera, filling in something that’s not actually there, and seeing a familiar image on a random hill.

This is an example of “pareidolia“, the brain’s tendency to see familiar images, especially faces, in random visual images.  It’s a subset of what Michael Shermer calls “patternicity”, the brain’s imposing of deliberate patterns on random noise.

Now how about this grilled cheese sandwich?

Madonna on Toast

It’s an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich, with the kind of random browning that shows up on a million other grilled cheese sandwiches.  So why did a Las Vegas Casino pay $28,500.00 for it?  Because out of those millions of sandwiches, this one had blobs that were kind of facelike, and so our brain jumps to seeing a face.  And those people that are devoutly Catholic jumped to the conclusion that it’s not just any face, it’s specifically the Virgin Mary. (That’s an example of priming, more on that next time.)  Of course, those people who weren’t raised Catholic might see a totally different face.  Here’s what it looks like to me:

Madonna and Madonna

Our tendency to see the familiar in randomness isn’t just visual, either.  More on that next post.

Credit – some of the images in the post are borrowed from Michael Shermer’s powerpoint presentation on Cognitive Biases.

Other posts on That One Spooky Thing:
Part one
Part two
Part 3.1
Part 3.2
Wrap-up
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Comments»

1. Phil - February 14, 2014

Here’s a question for you:
In a universe without a god, or higher intelligence as some prefer, can there be an afterlife or ghosts floating around? Can there be reincarnation? We have a preconceived condition that all these require a god. I don’t agree. It’s like morality – you don’t need a god to have morals. And so it is with with what you call supernatural. I believe you can have supernatural without a god. That doesn’t mean supernatural is real it simply permits it as a reality without the need for a god.

john zande - February 14, 2014

Buddhism doesn’t believe in a god, but does espouse reincarnation.

By your definition: the supernatural is just the natural that hasn’t made the textbooks yet. In that sense, i guess there’s plenty of room for it. I asked a QM physicist not long ago if atoms have the capacity to store information. I was surprised (pleasantly so) when he said, “Sure, in a sense.” He described the nature of quantum numbers, which i really didn’t understand, but did add the caveat that there is no way for that “information” to be read back, raising the question, is it really “information”? If however true, then by being able to write a minuscule amount of information into an atom would constitute a form of reincarnation in the sense of a continuance of something we were (or perhaps felt).

2. Sabio Lantz - February 14, 2014

Here is another fun cognitive illusion: The McGurk Effect.
A mismatch of visual and auditory:

ubi dubium - February 14, 2014

Shhh! Spoilers! (I already had that effect written into the draft for my next installment.)


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