Is What You See Really What You Get?

Everyone knows that you can’t always believe what you see. Despite how it seems to us, our perception of the world around us is actually quite limited and we frequently miss important information from our environment. The most obvious form of perceptual anomaly is optical illusions, where we perceive something that we know cannot be the case.

There’s an illusion called the Ponzo illusion where you see two lines stretching off towards the horizon like train tracks, and you have to estimate the length of two horizontal lines running across the track. These two lines appear to be different lengths, but we can measure and easily observe them to actually be the same length. The strange thing is that even when you know that the lines are the same length, they still appear to be different lengths.

Optical illusions are just one of the ways that our perceptions can lead us astray. Today we’re going to discuss the other ways in which our perceptions can play tricks on us, and learn a bit about how perception works.

Pay attention
When you think about it, it’s obvious that we don’t always perceive all of the details that we think we do. Just consider how it feels when you are tired, in a hurry, or absorbed with a problem, and you’re rushing down the street. You don’t pay much attention to the scene around you, so it’s easy to miss details that you would otherwise notice. There’s obviously a relationship between how much attention you pay to an environment, and the degree of detail that you’ll observe in that environment.

In its extreme form, this effect is called inattentional blindness. There’s a famous experiment from the 1970s called the invisible gorilla. In this test, participants are shown a video of two groups of people playing with a basketball. One group is dressed in white, the other in black. The participant is asked to count how many times the ball is passed between the players in white, which requires careful attention to the video as the passes are made quickly. At the end of the video, participants are asked how many passes were made, and also if they noticed anything unusual about the video. Around half of the participants answer that they saw nothing unusual in the video. But in fact, during the video as the passes are occurring, a person dressed in a gorilla suit enters the frame and dances around the players. If you’re not very focused on a task like counting the number of passes, it’s impossible to miss the gorilla. But when their attention is focused elsewhere, many people don’t see a huge dancing gorilla that is quite literally staring them in the face.

What changed?
It is to some extent obvious that how much attention you pay to a scene will affect how much you perceive of it – and, as in the case of the gorilla, paying a lot of attention to one aspect of a scene will make you less perceptive of other aspects of the scene. But perceptual anomalies go beyond just matters of attentiveness… into strange situations that seem unbelievable at first. One such aspect of perception is called change blindness, and it occurs when a scene is changed before our very eyes and we don’t even notice it.

Normally, humans are very good at detecting change. If we see two similar pictures one after another but there are subtle differences between the pictures, we’ll very quickly pick up on what is different. If you flick back and forth between the two images, you’ll see the differences between them jump out at you very obviously. However, there are ways to trick our brains so that we don’t notice such changes. One way is to introduce a blank screen between the images, so you see picture one – blank screen – picture two. This makes it much harder to detect differences between the pictures.

The funny thing is that this works not only with pictures but also in the real world. One experiment took place on a busy street, where an experimenter would stop a random passerby and ask them for directions. While they were asking, two confederates dressed as workmen would walk between the experimenter and the subject holding a large door which blocks the subject’s view for a moment. In that moment, the experimenter would duck out and be replaced by a different person. Once the workmen have passed by, most subjects didn’t even notice that the person they had been talking to a second ago had been replaced by a totally different person. This is how big a change can take place in our perception without us being aware of it.

Seeing patterns everywhere
Another perceptual oddity that humans have is a tendency to see patterns everywhere. The phenomenon of pareidolia refers to the habit we have of seeing patterns even in random noise, and especially of seeing faces. It’s why you get those funny blogs of hundreds of photos of coat hooks, bags, or other inanimate objects that everyone instantly perceives as looking like a face. It’s also why it’s common for people to perceive the face of Jesus in their toast – we have evolved to be so good at pattern recognition, and especially recognition of other faces, that we perceive faces even in random noise.

One of the most important things to understand about perception is that it is led by our mental state, including our prior knowledge and assumptions about the world. We refer to perception as being top-down, meaning that it is guided by our assumptions and knowledge, rather than bottom-up, which would be led by environmental details. It seems to us as if we are perceiving an accurate and objective picture of the world, but in fact large amounts of what we think we perceive is actually filled in by our brains. What you see is just as much about what you believe as it is about what’s in front of you.

To learn more about why we all see the world differently, visit

Conscious Thought vs Less Conscious Behaviors

Do your thoughts cause your behavior? That might sound like a silly question at first. Of course, you feel thirsty, you know that taking a drink will quench your thirst, so you move your arm to pick up your glass and drink some water. It’s obvious that your conscious thoughts about being thirsty and knowing that water will make you feel better caused that action, right?

In fact, evidence from cognitive neuroscience suggests that conscious thought may not be as much of a driver of behavior as we expect. Many of our actions are ‘decided on’ unconsciously.

Do thoughts cause behavior?

The question of what causes behaviors has been debated in philosophical circles for thousands of years. The problem is this: if you believe the body to be a purely physical thing, as most philosophers these days do, then it’s hard to explain how this physical body could be controlled by a mind. How do thoughts (a mental thing) cause actions (a physical thing)? In all the rest of the world as we know it, there is no other example of a mental thing causing a physical thing.

The solution that some have come to is that conscious thoughts don’t actually cause behaviors – the thoughts merely run alongside the behaviors, and we think that the thoughts cause the behavior because they happen at the same time. This view, called epiphenomenalism, sounds bizarre but is one of the few ways to make sense of the relationship between mental and physical: conscious thoughts are just a kind of window dressing for behaviors that are actually caused by physical things like the environment.

Push the button
If this sounds like unfounded philosophical pondering, then you’ll be glad to hear that more recently cognitive scientists have performed experiments to investigate the brain’s role in causing behaviors. A famous experiment by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet used EEG (a kind of brain scan) to measure the moment at which people decide to take an action. The participants were hooked up to the EEG machine and then asked to push a button at any time they wanted to in the next 10 seconds, and to look at a clock and take note of the exact moment at which they decided to act.

The strange thing was that a distinctive pattern of brain activation was found before the participants reported deciding to push the button. It seemed that there was a decision making process going on in the brain which took place a full half a second before the conscious decision to act was made. This is pretty solid evidence that behaviors are caused, at least to some extent, by unconscious brain processes rather than by conscious thoughts.

Is that my hand?
That’s pretty strange, for sure – the idea that decisions are being made by you before you’re actually consciously aware that you have made a decision. But still, regardless of the time differences involved, you still feel like you make a decision and then take an action. You’d know if a behavior happened without you deciding to do it, right? If you thought one thing and your body did another thing, you’d definitely notice – wouldn’t you?

According to experimental research, maybe not. There’s a group of experiments called false feedback tasks, in which participants perform a simple action such as drawing a straight vertical line. The trick is that the experiment is set up so that the participants don’t actually see their own hand performing the task. Back in the 1960s, this was achieved by getting participants to put their hand in a box and using a system of mirrors so that when they looked down, they actually saw the experimenter’s hand instead of their own. Nowadays similar effects are achieved using computerized feedback. Using this system, experimenters give the participants false visual feedback. So, for example, instead of seeing their own hand drawing a straight vertical line (which is what their hand was actually doing), the participant sees a hand that looks like their own drawing a line at an angle.

The really strange part is that a large majority of participants still think that the hand that they see is actually their own hand. Even when the action that they intended to take (draw a straight line) was actually followed by a different action (draw a crooked line), participants still felt as if they were in control of their actions and that they had decided to draw a crooked line instead. This means that people perceive themselves as consciously controlling their hand even when it was actually controlled by a computer or by the experimenter, and they believe their decisions to be controlling the hand even when they are not.

Why does this matter?
As you can see, the degree to which your conscious thoughts control your behaviors is actually not as clear as you might think. In terms of both deciding to take an action before it happens, and making an assessment that we chose to perform an action after it happens, we are remarkably influenced by non-conscious factors. We assume that we have consciously decided to take a certain action when we observe ourselves performing that action, when in fact many of our behaviors are not consciously driven.

All this information from philosophy and neuroscience might be interesting to ponder over, but does it actually matter to our everyday lives? Arguably it does, especially when we think about behavior change. If you’re trying to turn over a new leaf, such as by giving up smoking, becoming more organized, or working on a project every day, then you need to think about factors other than your conscious thoughts that might affect your behavior. Things like the environment you are in and your bodily state (whether you’re hungry, stressed, well rested, and so on) can have a large impact on your behaviors even if you are not consciously aware of them. We’ll get into this topic in more depth in the next blog post, so check back soon!

Changing The Way You Approach Cool And Detached People

insights-colour-quadrant-cool-blueIt’s important to be self aware for not only your benefit, but also for the benefit of the people you deal with on a day-to-day basis.  It may shock you to learn that when you’re at your best and doing your best work, others may be seeing you at your worst.  Perception is reality, so it’s important to have a grasp on how others perceive you.

In starting off the next four blogs on the Insights Colors, I want to start with Cool Blue energy.  People with a high level of Cool Blue energy, are introverted and have a desire to know and understand the world.  Does this sound like you or someone you know?  If this sounds like you, you like to think before you act and maintain a detached, objective standpoint.  You value independence and intellect.  You prefer written communication in order to maintain clarity and precision, which allows you to analyze the information to your heart’s content. 

Qualities in energies are both positive and negative; it just depends on who perceives them.  Cool Blue is, by definition, detached and takes its time to think.  Imagine how an opposite such as Fiery Red or Sunshine Yellow might perceive Cool Blue if they don’t know the energy’s analytical tendencies; they might view this energy as uncaring and, well, cool!  Meanwhile, Cool Blue cares deeply about the issue at hand and is doing some deep and profound thinking while gathering as much information as it can to make an educated decision.  In this example, Cool Blue’s opposites see Cool Blue at its worst when it is actually at its best.  Eventually Cool Blue will present its findings and will blow away Fiery Red and Sunshine Yellow’s misconceptions, but think about how much time and energy could be saved if the opposite energies understood Cool Blue’s process.  It’s not that Sunshine Yellow and Fiery Red are wrong in their actions, but had Cool Blue been self aware and been able to explain how it processes information, Cool Blue energy may have been given ample time to think and prepare for when the time came to make a decision.  In other words, we can’t control how other energies treat us, but we can help them to understand us so their perception of us isn’t too far off base.

If miscommunications like the example listed above are all too common in your company or organization, learn more by connecting with me, Scott Schwefel, on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.  Share this blog with the people you wish understood you a little better!