One – Getting Myths and Misconceptions Out of the Way – The Basics of Perception
I believe in science when I try to navigate in the world. Not only, I am also deeply spiritual. But I believe in the proven fact that science is a crucial tool when I am seeking facts, and truth, and guidance on how I should relate, in the world.
This writing came together as a result of my mind being all over the place. Like, I wanted to write down my own thoughts how I understand contemporary science on cosmological and on quantum scale. Hoping to improve my understanding like a student, summarising what I have learned, in taking notes and writing down what I understand. I have mentioned it earlier that one of my most long-standing interests also relates to cosmology and quantum mechanics. Which is not subject to writing in this blog directly.
I am also tinkering with an insanely powerful piece of software called “Unreal Engine 5” aka UE5, which is a 3-D graphical engine behind many modern computer games with which these impressive virtual worlds are being created that people get addicted to in gaming. It is my nerd nature and my interest in computer technology which is making me do this, and my attempting to accompany my youngest son, who spends countless hours per day in these virtual worlds and is also designing some of them. Then, again, my tinkering with UE5 brought me direct insight into how we perceive the world.
But when I embarked on this writing exercise I quickly saw that there is much more to my futile hobbyist effort understanding science. Beginning to write down my knowledge of vision, the history of optics, and today’s mindblowing science, I quickly saw that I also needed to put it into a larger context, generally thinking about how we perceive the world. From there, it was a small step only to see the linkages between perception, emotion, communication, and interaction, and the crucial role of memory, and the relevance of this topic for discussions in the field of work that this blog is relating to: Within a snap I was on a mental discourse heading towards thoughts relevant within the framework of this blog about Peace&Security, Justice&Reconciliation.
It goes as follows:
Instruments of perception
What I see is not the real world. Not even a true image of it. Visual perception is the result of an interpretation: The interpretation of the projection of light rays on the retina of my eyes. I interpret signals that come in from the nerves connecting my eyes with my brain. It is not just a stream of pictures coming in like from a “camera obscura”, an upside down image of the light from the outer world being projected on the retina inside my eyes. Of course, physically speaking this is what happens in my eyes. But the process in my brain is much more complicated: My brain is creating a mental image of sorts, somehow in my conscience, from those signals which are being transmitted from my eyes to the brain, and it does so in a very complicated way. Incoming signals are being subject to categorization and interpretation involving various separate sub-systems at different locations of my brain, and somehow the results of these processes end up as a composite representation in my consciousness. There are so many conditions for how I interpret the signals from my eyes, they include even subconscious assessments about whether incoming signals would indicate a threat, which is even happening before the conscious parts of my brain have a chance to say: This is what the eyes see.
Or: Dive into the many baffling examples of optical illusions just as one piece of evidence for this statement: That which I see is an interpreted image of some kind of the optical input reaching my eyes, forwarded from there as electrical impulses to my brain. What I perceive as the “final result” is the construct of a number of highly complicated and not yet fully understood processes in my brain, responsible for various components of vision, and input from other senses, and then comprehension. Nothing I see will be transformed into perception without an inner judgement about what I see. The statement related to an optical input such as “These are trees “ in the picture above, it is an academic reduction within a logical and communicative framework. Daily reality works differently.
The point I want to make is that “seeing” is so much more than only establishing a mental picture from the input of my eyes, and “perception” is even larger than “seeing”. It is about various ways of interpretation of a “picture”, and much of that happens without me having any control over it. Seeing is way more than a linear transformation of an optical process. This is what we know today, because neuroscience has advanced so much.
The same goes for what I hear, what I smell, what I feel, what I taste. I put this all together into an explanation which helps me navigating in my everyday world: I can touch something that I see, and I can get a sensory input about temperature, surface structure, the smell of the object which I see and touch. I lick what looks like a white rock, is feeling like a crystal, and it’s tasting like salt, so my conclusion that this likely is a lump of salt allows me to interact with the world of which I am a part. If that lump of matter looks different, feels soft, smells foul, I’ll probably not lick it. There is this joke about Daddy and the whole family driving on the highway. Daddy bragging to the kids: “See that card box ahead of us on the road? Now Daddy shows you how it sounds if you smash it with the car.” Thing being: If Daddy would have known that the card box wasn’t empty, but that this washing machine which fell off the truck was still inside, the story would have ended with less damage.
Perception is the result of a conclusion about what sensoric input I get. I’ll come to the role of emotions and memory in this a little later, but if Daddy’s memory is fine after his release from the hospital, he will hopefully see the danger next time he attempts to ride over a large object on the road. Fear will help him on that learning curve. But I’m too far ahead, though I will say: Perception can also be inhibited through faulty memory, or traumatic emotions. If the kids have suffered from serious trauma on occasion of this event, the impact of these events on future perception of cardboxes, and Daddies, will get drastically more difficult. Hang on, I need to systematically develop my point first.
I still highly recommend David Eagleman’s book “The Brain” and it’s visualisation within the equally named series of videos on PBS, inter alia available on Apple TV. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, and his popular science teaching on what we know about the brain has blown my mind a few years ago. Perception has a purpose, perhaps only this purpose: To allow me to navigate in my environment. The purpose is not to reflect my environment in the most precise objective way possible, but to allow me navigating in it the most suitable way possible. Or, as David Eagleman puts it: Brains constantly need other brains to communicate, and they establish a shared interpretation of reality through this.
All living beings (virii probably being at the border between living and non-living entities) have a process which I name “perception” going on, and the perception of the environment is meant to establish a common interpretation of it, through forms of communication. Bacteria are able to avoid hostile environments, we can demonstrate this in experiments: They don’t only die on poisonous surfaces laced with antibiotics, and thrive on nutrients. There is a choice involved after some time, and from what I know, there may be some form of communication involved. Plants do communicate environmental threats, and the mystery of mycelium, of which we mostly only see the mushroom parts popping up in the forest, it includes a lot of communication within this underground network often stretching out hundreds of meters, or more, and likely also communication between a mycelium and, say, trees. Animals of all levels of development communicate results of an interpretation of their environment. And the higher the cognitive processes, the more also the ability to understand effects where seeing and touching may not lead to a congruent expected answer. What does, for example, my cat conclude if he sees his picture in the bathroom mirror? Head over to YouTube or Instagram, go see. The coherence of sensual input is contextual. If I see a face and can smell and touch it, it’s likely a being. If I see a face which I can’t smell and I bump into a surface when I want to touch it or I get my paws wet in the water, my human friend calls this a reflection.
Interim conclusion: I started with the sense of vision here, but in order to make the case that optical representation in the eye is not the same as its interpretation in my brain, the combination with other senses needs to be mentioned: In my everyday life, conclusions about what I perceive are rarely made on grounds of only vision, or only smell, or taste. Usually it’s a combination, and usually it is a sort of an automatic process running in the background. Like I mostly don’t have to pay attention to how I manage to walk, or how I drive a car, the same is true for most of my sensory input. Only when some event or perception requires a cognitive analysis, this analysis is -hopefully- triggered in my frontal lobe. If I’m sloppy, I’ll rely on autopilot. Which creates huge risks, not only on highways littered with washing machines, but on a social level also for communities and societies.
The senses with which I am equipped, they are an evolutionary result of what is useful for my species in order to successfully interact with my environment. My interpretation of how the world looks like, feels like, smells like, it is based on the capacity and calibration of my senses. By no means I can conclude that the world is as I “see” it’s representation in my brain, and by no means I can conclude that the way this process of representing the “outer world” is unique and the same for everyone, and every species: Some birds, or many, are able to gauge the magnetic field of the earth; many animals can hear sounds which we human beings can not hear, in the low and in the high spectrum; bees see the world on a spectrum including ultra-violet light; some fish, like sharks, sense the electromagnetic field of other animals in their neighborhood. Some animals can even send out such a field, for probing their environment, and to paralyse prey. Bats are using ultrasound like an acoustic radar.
I will focus on vision and how we, over millennia, tried to understand the process of optics, but not without concluding that our senses allow us to interpret our environment, as far as our senses reach, and the interpretation always allows us to interact. Run away. Fight. Eat this. Don’t eat that. The more complex the brain of a living species connected to a set of sensors, the more sophisticated are the interactions with the world.
But for any living being it is true that our specific senses allow an interpretation of our environment, they allow a representation of our environment in our brains and they do not give us a full image, they only allow to see what is within the capacity range of the sensors, and what our brain makes from this sensory input. We do not see the world. We see an extremely limited interpretation of the world.
We do not even know in principle if two persons have the same representation of, say, a color, when they name a color. How do I know that the representation of the color “blue” is the same for my neighbor? Color-blind people find different ways to conclude something may have an attribute that others name “blue”. There are rare instances of cases where people connect a sound to a color. It’s called “chromestesia“.
For any living being without a higher cognitive process running in the frontal lobe of the brain, such academic or philosophical questions are less relevant. As long as they successfully interact with their environment, the question of how their eyes work, and how light behaves following the mathematics of optics is less relevant for them.
If there would not be not the role of communication within a perception of the world which is established between groups of beings.
Part Two of this writing will focus on how groups establish common frameworks of perception. For the moment I stop, this blog entry has become very long already. Let me, and you, take a break.
But I got the basics out of the way.