Are You Really Seeing What You Think You Are Seeing?

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Your eyes can fool you!

For one of the coolest optical illusions I have seen, click on the picture then come back here. No matter how many times you watch the short video clip and no matter how sure you are that the cube is the same size on all sides, every time you look at this picture it will fool you.

We’re talking today about perception and how much culture effects what we see and what we think we see.

Too Much Happening At Once

Because our brain is bombarded with information every moment of every day, we must be selective in what we notice (“attend to” to use a more scientific word). By “bombarded” I mean that our brains receive 400 billion (with a “b!”) pieces of information every second.

400 Billion Messages a Second!

How can that be? Think about the fact that you could probably hear dozens of sounds right this minute if you stopped to listen. Add to that the things that go unnoticed by your nose, eyes, and your tongue all times. Simultaneously, every inch of your skin is firing millions of signals to your brain 24/7. You don’t notice the slight taste of your breakfast still stuck between your teeth, the smell of the cologne you put on this morning, and the feel of your shirt touching your back.

You Must Be Selective

The reason you don’t notice these billions of inputs bombarding your brain is because we have to be selective in what we notice in order to survive. We can’t be thinking about our pants touching our leg all day long or we wouldn’t get anything done.

We seem to be “hard-wired” to notice certain things. Movement is one. In an entire room filled with hundreds of still things, a small mouse running across the room will immediately grab our attention. Followed by our screaming and jumping on a chair also grabbing the attention of the folks in the next room.

Faces are another thing we notice. We have all heard stories about people seeing famous people or religious figures in a piece of toast or in the clouds, but actually that is normal and not strange. In some recent research*, Dr. Kang Lee said, “…our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent (facial) features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”

Culture Helps Decide What We Notice

In some cultures people pay close attention to the numbers on license plates, and in some cultures it matters very little. Americans will rarely notice the numbers on a license plate, while Arabs usually care much more about it. In China, it is extremely important because some numbers are very lucky and other very unlucky. Rich Chinese people have been known to pay many thousands of dollars to get a “fortunate” license plate.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter what we pay attention to? It matters a lot because in intercultural relations people from different cultures will notice different things and will take away different understandings from the things they pay attention to. Not handling the differences well can lead to distrust and misunderstandings while being a master at it will greatly help your multicultural capability.

Next time, we will meet my friend, Janet, and learn a couple of great ways to not get caught in the cultural perception trap.

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*Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee. Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex, 2014; 53: 60 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.01.013

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