Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mind Games

The Illusions of perception and thought
How people perceive the world around them has tremendous consequences on how they think and plays an important role in formulating belief systems. What our senses tell us do not always reflect what is really there and how we cognitively interpret what we see is not always accurate.

Take a look at the Herman’s grid above. As you observe the grid you’ll note small grey blobs at the intersection of the white lines. This physiological phenomenon is known as lateral inhibition.

Looking at where the blob appears you will note that it is surrounded on four sides by white but if you shift your gaze to the vertical bands of white between the intersections you will see that there are only two neighboring white areas. Lateral inhibition causes light receiving cells in the retina to shut down when the light receiving cells around them are activated. When looking at the intersection, the cells focused on that area are surrounded on four sides by others which are also firing. Looking at the bands, by contrast, the cells adjacent to those focused on the bands are activated on only two sides.The cells are therefore more inhibited when they are focused on the intersections than they are when they are focused on the white bands hence the illusion of blobs.

This illustrates that illusions of this kind are actually errors in perception or construction from a stimulus. These types of illusions are mechanical in origin. Your sensory perception tries its best to react to environmental stimulus. How ever, what really complicates the matter is when you add another layer of illusion to these sensory inputs.These are the errors in cognition as higher level areas in the brain attempt to interpret what is observed.

In Ballinspittle, Cork County, back in1985 a group of young teenagers claimed to have seen a Virgin Mary moving, apparently worryingly wringing her hangs. There followed a rash of sightings all over the world, and today this type of occurrence is rather commonplace.

The UFO phenomenon seems to have an eerily similar pattern of mixing sensory and cognitive errors creating illusory interpretations. There is a fascinating thread from visual sightings to encounters of the third kind that can be intertwined with a potent combination of “misfiring” of experience and thought.

This marriage of perception and cognition has powerful implications when attempting to understand the origin of belief, cultural influence, and down the line to varying healing practices. These cognitive/sensory illusions are deeply intertwined with ingrained prejudices and biases many of which we are not aware of. Intuition and “common sense” have roots here.

These perceptions likely serve a critical function allowing us the ability to deal effectively with everyday normal experience. The problem is that although the sensory illusions we experience are often benign (magic tricks), the cognitive illusions can cause more trouble. They cement and reinforce prejudices which can create rigid paradigms and world views that can be harmful.

The brain constructs even its most elaborate ideas much the same way it constructs sensory perceptions. How we think (not what we think) is related to the pattern and connectivity of our neurons. It seems that sensory illusions are not malleable to change. Herman’s grid can not be changed no matter how much we stare at it. On the other hand, cognitive illusions can be changed and modified by continually observing and inquiring about the world around us.

We can begin to understand reasons other than divine intervention as to why the Virgin Mary "moved", or what UFO sightings can reveal about perception, or how illusory healing systems come to be. Through time one can alter these cognitive illusions and actually modify brain activity allowing for a deeper understanding of what most apporoximates the truth. This is what science tries to do.

In other words, thinking alters thinking.

Ref: Mapping the Mind, Carter, R. Univ of CA Press. LA, CA

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