Friday, December 30, 2011

Between Perception and Reality

Don't we remember seeing shapes in the clouds morphing into a human face or recognizable objects? something like this.
Or, do you recall the chill that ran up your spine when you saw a lingering human figure in the black silhouette of the swaying tree branches? You might pass this up as mere illusion, something that occurs when your mind plays tricks on you. Then consider more of such cases. Do you remember a game in our childhood where we use to spot abstract figures or objects in the messy ink splatters formed between two pages of our notebooks (the famous Rorschach Inkblot test)?.  
I am sure you won't forget this one. The famous 'Face on Mars' - a part of its Cydonia region. The picture was taken by the Viking 1 orbiter spacecraft and was released by NASA/JPL on July 25, 1976 upon seeing which people mistaken it for existence of Alien civilization on Mars. Lastly, not to forget the several instances of UFO sightings and numerous reportings on appearances of ghost images in videos and photos.

Wonder what are these? Simple illusions or cases of pathological disorders in the brain? No, don't worry you haven't lost your wits yet. I chanced upon this interesting article by Dr. John W. Hoopes, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Kansas, and was astonished to learn that this is a quite common phenomenon and is attributed to our error of perception, called Apophenia. Based on the recent researches and experiments, specialists in the field of Psychology, psychoanalysis and neurobiology are trying to understand this condition and its related effects. Apophenia is a tendency to interpret or see patterns or connections in a random or meaningless data. In fact the examples we just described are a special case called Pareidolia. which is visual Apophenia. Dr. Hoopes tells that Apophenia is a result of process of Human Cognitive evolution. In words of Carl Segan, Human mind is hard-wired to recognize faces from birth and this ability allows us to use only minimal details such as outline of an object or a shape to recognize or interpret random images or patterns as faces from a distance, and even in poor visibility conditions.

Those of you who have read the famous book 'Fooled by Randomness' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb would recollect that Taleb talks about the cognitive biases, which is a general term used to describe may distortions in human mind that result in the errors in its judgmental capabilities. We are all victims of cognitive biases. We stake our life-savings in the Stock Market trusting on the hunches of an investment analyst who claims to "foresee" the upcoming market drift in its random movements. This is an example of hindsight bias. The analyst constructs financial models that claim to predict the market movements based on historical data which in a way "seem" to fit a pattern. Or a 'confirmation bias' which makes us see only that information which confirms our preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. This shows that there is some common footing between Apophenia and cognitive biases. Dr. Hoopes apparently hold that "Apophenia is not usually pathological but can become so in schizophrenia, when pattern recognition and interpretation run wild".

Hollywood has exploited this idea in movies such as " A Beautiful Mind" about John Nash, the nobel laureate mathematician and founder of the field of Game theory, who is tricked by his mind into believing that he has been hired by US department of defense to detect and decode patterns in magazines and newspapers which supposedly is the clandestine mode of communication for Russians. In pursuit of doing so he becomes preoccupied with it and loses his sanity. Similarly, in psychological thriller "Pi", a debut movie by Darren Aronofsky, the protagonist, a number theorists, strongly believes in the premise that every thing in this nature can be understood by numbers. He becomes obsessed with finding predictable patterns within the stock market movements inevitably lingering on the verge of madness.

Pattern recognition and interpretation is fundamental to human existence. Conditions such as Apophenia or Pareidolia gives us a glimpse of the eerie propensities of Human mind which pushes us to the fringes of our understanding of perception and reality.

Image courtesy: NASA/JPL and Shutterstock


Amatya Rakshas said...

Great post.

These pattern recognition in relatively random shapes and designs will take us into neurology and cognitive sciences. I'm sure you must have come across the Booba-kiki effect as well:

This has been studied and commented upon by the great neurologist of our time shri VS Ramachandran; another one of his work is he about aesthetic universals and neurology of Indic arts:

Long 1 hr video; watch only when at leisure.

Keep up the prolific work!

Aaditya.khare said...

Thanks AR...

V Ramchandran is a one of those few neuro-scientists who have been involved in exploring these eerie aspects of Human brain and have been quite successfull in developing an deeper fact i am current reading his famous book "phantoms in the brain" in which he has described very unusual conditions of such patients suffering from brain illnesses and also explained some of the bizarre experiments he conducted on them....i might write one post on that soon...

Amatya Rakshas said...

i might write one post on that soon...

Looking forward to that.