1. Perception




Brain: The Center for Ongoing Guesswork

My father was a lifelong analytical chemist who loved to cook. He was able to count on his ability to read data from gas chromatography to detect the chemicals in a piece of plastic, just as easily as he could concoct the right blend of seasoning and beans and vegetables and broth to create endless variations of Bob’s Homemade Soups.

Until one day, lifting a too-heavy bag of ingredient for a group meal he was creating at the men’s club, a blood vessel popped somewhere around his eyeball. His depth perception was affected. When he tried to help me fix something at my house, he could not connect hammer with nail. Another day, the kids and I sat down with my parents for one of his soups, and there was something odd about the taste; he’d mistakenly used dried cherries instead of kidney beans. Another day he poured a bag of potting soil into the water softener instead of a bag of salt.

Now in his 80s, his brain doesn’t process like it used to, with dementia affecting two areas. He has trouble seeing things that are in front of him and recognizing them for what they are and are not. And he has more trouble finding the right words in conversation. Yet he is still largely the father and “Papa” my kids and I have known — the man with a great sense of humor. Wherever humor comes from, it is intact.

The limitation of the brain is that it is a center for interpreting – not for knowing. It provides us with information. And person by person, week to week, moment to moment, we interpret that information differently depending on any number of variables:

cubeOur brain sees 12 lines on a piece of paper and, with training, enables us to perceive those lines as a cube. Yet, those 12 one-dimensional lines are not a cube. We know the story the depiction is telling us and we interpret it for ourselves.

In short, our brains interpret data, in an incredibly fast way, and merge it with past experience to help us reason our way to explanation and categorization and expectation. Are these cherries or kidney beans? Would they enhance the flavor of this soup? That is, until a line of communication breaks, and our perceptions or our memory or our taste buds stop cooperating with the interpretation center.

“Ultimately there are as many different ways of perceiving the world as there are species of life in the universe. What we take to be reality is simply the particular way the human mind sees and interprets the physical world.” – Peter Russell


EXAMPLE: What Color Is This Dress?

In 2015, 10 million people via social media nearly overnight learned something about how the mind works, with the infamous meme debate: Is the dress blue/black or white/gold? We discovered that we don’t all see things the same way.

For my daughter and I, the dress is consistently white/gold. My son sees it as blue/black. My daughter and I are dumbfounded at his view, just as he is perplexed with ours.

In reality, the dress in question is blue/black. But that doesn’t mean my daughter and I are wrong to see it the way we do. We simply do. Our brain processes the same information my son has, but comes up with a different result. Coverage of the scientific explanation:

  • Wired — “The fact that a single image could polarize the entire Internet into two aggressive camps is, let’s face it, just another Thursday. People across social media have been arguing about whether a picture depicts a perfectly nice dress as blue with black lace fringe or white with gold lace fringe. And neither side will budge. This fight is about more than just social media—it’s about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in a sunlit world.”
  • The New York Times — “Our perception of color depends on interpreting the amount of light in a room or scene. When cues about the ambient light are missing, people may perceive the same color in different ways.”
Our brains are always interpretation centers that make sense of data, not truth-finders. There is no singular truth, even when it seems like there is — because we all sense differently.