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 GENIUS HOME - Reader's Letters: Perception...

Perception: How Our Expectations Influence Perception

A teacher gives a vivid example...

Kirsten is a long term subscriber to my BrainSqueezers newsletter (hint: the sign-up is to your right!) and wrote to me with a fascinating experiment in perception she carried out at her school...

Kirsten writes:

To: wily[at]wilywalnut.com
Date: Fri, 13 Feb 2009 09:28:15 -0800
Subject: Seeing what you think you will see

Dear Sir:

I am a High School Art teacher, and I have been reading your newsletter for about one year. I wanted to share a story with you about perception.
A few years ago my computer printer had a meltdown. One of the things it did was print out a full page of dots, in a sort of sloppy grid.

Perception: how expectations influence perceptionAt that time, "Magic Eye" art work posters were popular, the type of illustrations that look like colored dots but if you stare at them a 3D image eventually pops out. Remember?

Anyway, my students immediately started trying to "guess" what was in the picture. They were seeing all sorts of things that weren't there.
I decided to run a contest. I first asked my classes, "How many of you think that you actually see and can identify what is front of your eyes?" (Of course everyone thinks that they do.)

I then explained that one of the difficulties of drawing accurately is that we make it too hard by thinking that drawing  is too complex. If we just look at what is in front of us and draw what we see, we can all draw amazing pictures.

I asked students to look at the dot picture and I had them write down  exactly what they saw in the picture on a piece of paper. I cautioned them not to complicate matters, but just to describe exactly what they saw.
One student in about 100 sees correctly and writes "a bunch of grey dots." Everyone else sees cowboys, elephants, etc, etc.
Seeing what you think you will see has many implications.

Food for thought,
Kirsten Allen

Here is my reply:

Dear Kirsten,
That's a brilliant and fascinating example of how desperate the human mind is to make sense of the world -- it projects a meaning where it can't see one. Pattern recognition make us feel safe and secure in a random world.
I think that tells us so much about how our beliefs and superstitions are formulated. It also points to one of the unconscious drivers of our creativity.
A wonderful exercise is to try and recapture that 'baby mind' where we just see things exactly as they are, without reference to memories, without making comparisons, just seeing with that beautiful open state of wonder that observes things exactly as they are.
Thank you for writing and sharing your story about perception.
Your students are very lucky to have a teacher like you.
Wishing you the best of the best,

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