Stop for a minute to see your surroundings. Do you really perceive reality as it is? Usually, it feels that way. But there is a chance that what we see is just an illusion.
The thing is that our brains lie to us. Constantly. This summary explores the complicated science behind human perception to unveil the process during which our brains mess with us.
This guide uses the author Beau Lotto’s thirty years of experience in neuroscientific research to uncover the various ways where we are tricked by our brains to confuse what is real and what is not.
In this summary, you will explore the reasons why your brain tricks you. You will also uncover how comprehending counterintuitive cognitive functions are useful to explore new areas of creativity.
Chapter 1 – The reality is an objective truth, but our brains may not recognize it.
Let’s remember February of 2014. People all around the world are in a heated argument. They announce their opinions on social media where their families, friends, or complete strangers aggressively disagree with them.
This situation is not extraordinary. But what caused the specific fuss that happened in February 2014? A simple blue-and-black dress. Or is it a gold-and-white dress? Well, that is the exact reason why the whole Internet got into a heated debate. Everyone is looking at the same dress but while some people see blue and black while some see gold and white.
This optical illusion unveiled the weird reality of the human mind and thus, it quickly became the most talked topic for weeks. It made millions of people wonder the same thing: is what we perceive as reality only a subjective interpretation?
This dress is only one of the many examples of how our brains’ perception of a situation may vastly differ from reality. Indeed, such distortions can be found almost everywhere in life. Take a moment to remember all the optical illusions you’ve seen until now.
One of the well-known examples is the example of two circles, each outlined by a different field of color. When you first look at it, the circles seem different, with one appearing darker than the other. But after holding the circles side by side, it becomes evident that they are both the same shade. The reason why we think they are different is due to the fact that our brain perceives the visual stimulus differently, depending on the surrounding context.
Let’s consider another example. Imagine that you are in a stationary train. While you stare out of the window, the train on the next track begins to move. For a second, as the train starts moving, you might feel as if the train you’re in is moving backward.
Indeed, it is not just the eyes that are susceptible to deceit. Each of our senses may be deceived by the mind. But if we can’t rely on our senses, then how can we understand what is real? Well, for the majority of the time, it is impossible to understand that. And that is okay.
Usually, distortions of our surroundings are quite harmless, and sometimes even beneficial. These distortions help us concentrate on more essential feelings, like pain or fear. Besides, since our brains are the result of countless years of evolution, how they interpret reality doesn’t necessarily need to be accurate. Its main responsibility is to help us survive.
Chapter 2 – Interpretation is essential for information to be meaningful.
Let’s say you and your friend are having a debate over something. The details are not important, but both of you are sure that the other is not remembering correctly.
A few decades ago, you’d agree to disagree. Now, you can just take your phone and search for the truth. Thanks to the Information Age, the reality is just a few clicks away.
But does being able to search for facts anytime and anywhere really help us? On its own, it doesn’t matter that much. Of course, you can look up information about anything you want, but the data is useless without your phone to process it.
The world is full of information. Each day, we are surrounded by new information in the form of photons, chemicals, and vibrations. However, these would be meaningless in their raw forms. For those forms to signify any value at all, they have to be separated and processed. Then we will be able to perceive colors thanks to photons, tastes thanks to the chemicals, and sounds thanks to the vibrations.
To aid this interpretation phase, our brains have evolved to avoid unimportant information. As a consequence, we process only the information that we need. That’s the reason why we can only hear specific frequencies, smell specific chemicals, and see what is called the “visible light”, meaning that a narrow slice of the full electromagnetic spectrum.
Therefore, we can say that our perception of reality has always been partial since the beginning. However, even with the partial perception of the world, the information we process is not always clear. Indeed, it usually is mixed with complex bundles.
Imagine that you are looking at a landscape at sunset. What do you see in such a setting? You might see a forest or a plain field. However, these images are in fact a multi-layered interchange of three things –photons from the sun, the surfaces that reflect those protons, and the air through which they move. These three elements come together to help your sense of sight.
However, there is still a long way to go after the light hits your retina. There is still a need for other elements to create meaning from what your senses have processed. Interpretation is a complex task, as a simple sight such as a smiling face might have numerous meanings depending on the context. “How is that possible?” you might ask. Well, the answer is explored in the next chapter!
Chapter 3 – Our brains need to interact with our surroundings to learn.
Ben Anderson was just a normal child. Growing up in Sacramento, California, he walked to school, spent his time playing basketball and riding his bike around the neighborhood. However, what makes Ben unique from other boys his age is that he did all those things without his eyes.
Ben lost his sense of sight due to a rare form of cancer at the age of three. Almost immediately after that, he started to explore new methods of navigating the world. He developed a way to understand the world around him: he would click his tongue and listen to the sounds reflecting off surfaces. Fundamentally, he used echolocation to navigate instead of his sight.
Such an adaptation like Ben’s proves the flexibility of the human brain. After periods of trial and error, we start learning new ways to perceive the reality around us.
Our brains aren’t static. On the contrary, the brain can become sharpened and refined with time. It all comes down to how we use it. Similar to an athlete, who trains her muscles to move graciously, normal people can train their minds to become more tactful, flexible, or creative. As we interact with our surroundings, we learn.
A study demonstrates the necessity of interacting with the world for brain health. The scientists separated rats into two groups. The first group was surrounded by a dynamic environment with a lot of toys and other stimuli. The other group was left in gloomy cages with no changes. Within a month, the groups exhibited vast differences in brain structure. The group with a more interactive environment had more developed brains with more cells and denser neural connections.
Similar to those rats, surrounding ourselves with new stimuli and dynamic settings will be beneficial for our brains to get stronger. It can even help us learn how to incorporate new senses, as a study from the University of Osnabrück showed. Subjects wore special belts that would vibrate toward magnetic north, which is similar to the magnetic sensing exhibited by some animal species. Wearing the belts for a few weeks helped the participants to develop spatial perception. As a result, the subjects were more accurate with their navigation skills.
Thankfully, we don’t need luxurious equipment to stimulate our brains. Exposing ourselves to new environments, art, and people will be more than enough for our brains to be well-developed.
Chapter 4 – Our perception of reality is determined by the context.
Louis XVIII faced a problem in 1824. People were not pleased about his royal tapestry factory in Paris. It had vibrant fabrics in the showroom, yet the moment a nobleman bought thread to take home, there was a change in the colors. The greens weren’t as verdant, and the reds weren’t as rich.
Michel Chevreul, the king’s chemist, decided to see what the problem is. What came to his mind first was the fact that yarn was degrading with time. Or maybe, the factory chose cheap dyes that tended to get worn out quickly. However, studying the problem for years, he finally came to the conclusion: both the thread and the dye were completely fine.
His findings suggested that the problem lied in the eye of the beholder. Basically, it was an optical illusion. The yarns seemed more vivid when they were woven together in the showroom. When they were separated, however, the lack of contrast deceived people to see them duller.
Chevreul found out the fundamental reality behind the science of perception—the fact that we don’t sense anything in isolation. Our perception is always distorted, and our interpretation of our surroundings might be affected by the contextual circumstances, just like the example of the tapestries.
Past context also affects present interpretation. Let’s explore this issue with the struggles of some people who want to learn a new language. For example, English uses R and L sounds for different meanings. Native speakers know this fact by nature and know how to tell the difference. However, Japanese does not have such phonetic distinctions. That is why some Japanese speakers find it hard to differentiate between R and L sounds when learning languages like English since there is no such difference in their native context.
Fundamentally, what our brains do is to learn the kinds of information that were important in the past and keep them for future references. While this skill helps many people in their daily lives, it can also make accurate perception a hard task.
For example, we need to check our assignments many times before turning them in because we usually don’t notice typos easily. That is because our brains automatically fix them, as they know the true place of the letters.
Despite the undeniable influence of the context, we can still control the way we interpret our surroundings. Indeed, our brains are equipped with the power to adjust our perception consciously. Read the new chapter to find out how it is possible.
Chapter 5 – Our minds can alter how we perceive our surroundings.
In 1915, a brand-new painting by the artist Kazimir Malevich created a sense of excitement among people living in St. Petersburg. Some people believed the piece to be an example of the avant-garde while some regarded it as a blatant insult to art. What was depicted in the art piece that created such a controversy? A single black square.
As you can guess, connoisseurs believed the piece to be much more than its color and shape. They saw the work in context. They perceived the painting in accordance with other art movements, as criticism on aesthetic theory. They believed the art to be a personal statement.
But these meanings were not physically visible on the canvas. Indeed, it was just a black square. Viewers were able to form their opinions thanks to their imaginations.
Being conscious is one of the most important characteristics of humanity. We can dream about anything thanks to our cognitive abilities and imagination. This creates the foundation of what we call art. Art can be created in the form of fairy tales, Disney films, novels, or Broadway plays.
Our ability of conscious thought is beneficial for making sense of things inside our heads. Besides that, it also helps us change how we see the world.
A well-known optical illusion shows the extent of this power. It’s the simplistic flipbook showing a spinning diamond. If you flip the book, the diamond spins toward the right. If you stop for a minute and try to imagine it spinning toward the left, you will see it spinning toward the left when you flip the book one more time. Despite the fact that the image is the same, how you choose to perceive it changes the direction of the movement.
As you can see from this illusion, how we perceive reality is ultimately up to us. This may be done consciously, like interpreting art. But usually, it’s an unconscious act.
It has been proved by research that our perceptions are affected by two elements: our past experiences and emotional states. For example, coins may seem bigger in shape and more expensive to poor children than to rich ones. Tired people find hills more daunting while well-rested people may not be fazed by them.
Thus, we can say that what we perceive as reality may be mirror images of what is inside our brains. We will find out in the next chapter how these internal assumptions affect the way we perceive reality.
Chapter 6 – Our thinking process is both assisted and hindered by our assumptions.
A Liberian man went to a hospital in Nigeria on a summer day in 2014. He was sick. Very sick. Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh decided to test him for Ebola. The Liberian government ordered Adadevoh to release the patient before the results came up. Defying any advice from others, she decided to keep him in quarantine.
Her actions created controversy, but eventually, it helped to save the lives of many after the results confirmed that the man did have Ebola. But what was the motivation behind Adadevoh’s decision? And why did it differ from everyone else’s?
We can’t say exactly. But it is apparent that her insistent decision was motivated by her unique perception of the world. She believed the situation to be dangerous and acted accordingly to that belief.
We have already established that our perception of the world around us is not always reliable. Rather, it is influenced immensely by what happens in our minds. Besides that, our imagination also helps us control the interpretation phase to some extent.
That’s not the full picture. Our imagination has its own restrictions, and the majority of them stem from our unconscious assumptions.
Each experience contributes to the arrangement of connections in the brain. When we come across unfamiliar situations, we try to use the pre-established connections to understand and analyze the situation. That means that our thoughts are shaped by certain patterns and that we don’t evaluate situations with a fresh mind.
This is often useful. If a specific set of stimuli created a negative experience in the past, our brains will help us recognize similar situations immediately so that we could avoid such negative experiences again. On the other hand, consistency of the same thought patterns may stop our brains from exploring new patterns. In that way, our assumptions may work as restrictions that hinder us from perceiving the world in novel ways.
Thankfully, these assumptions are not unchangeable. We can contemplate our thought patterns with introspection and unveil the beliefs that we didn’t even realize that we had. It may be a hard process, but it is essential to consciously deviate from pre-set beliefs from time to time to become more flexible. As the world is changing each day, our thought patterns should also be able to adapt to the change.
Chapter 7 – Being creative means being free from your established assumptions.
French soldiers were campaigning through Egypt when they found something great in 1799. What they found was an ancient stone with three scripts engraved on it. It was then called the Rosetta Stone, including writing in ancient Greek, demotic Egyptian, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
During that time, linguists were already competent in ancient Greek, so they were sure that the other two languages would be deciphered easily as well. But it didn’t go as planned. Researchers tried to make sense of the hieroglyphs for a long time. As they included small pictures, translators thought they symbolized whole words. But this assumption didn’t help them at all.
Jean-François Champollion, a fresh linguist, presented an idea: the hieroglyphics may symbolize phonetic sounds instead of words. And after that, everything became clear. Just by questioning the foundation of it, Champollion has provided insight for new ways of perceiving the world.
As we can understand from the case of Rosetta Stone, the first step of creating new ideas is questioning the old ones. It may seem like a direct, easy-to-follow idea, but putting it into practice is hard for many.
Since our traditional methods of perception can be so deeply rooted, it is hard to notice them. Thus, we need to make a conscious effort to recognize the smallest logical mistakes. Those mistakes can be things that we were 100% sure to be true.
Think about a well-known brain teaser like Dunker’s Candle. You find a candle, some matches, and a box of tacks. You are required to stick the candle to the wall, and then to light it. The tacks are too short to pin the candle. Then you suddenly notice something, and your previous assumptions clear up. You can just pin the box to the wall. And if you do that, you will create a shelf for the candle. Problem solved.
Avoiding assumptions paves the way for new experiences, and the greatest method to start this new journey is with lots of trial and error. Interacting with your surroundings in novel ways continuously is crucial to understand that most of the old beliefs don’t hold up in every scenario. Even the things that appear obvious may provide new insights when you try to look at them in a different way.
Backwards Brain Cycle, a stunt exhibited by educator Destin Sandlin, proves this argument. He came up with a bike with inverted steering, meaning that the handlebars would turn left while the bike turns right, and vice versa. Although this seems like a small alteration, the bike would require a brand-new way of balance to navigate through the road. This alteration made even the most skilled cyclist struggle. This situation shows that their assumed knowledge was not enough to guide them in new settings.
Chapter 8 – Accepting uncertainty helps one to perceive the world in different ways.
Imagine human life two million years ago. Imagine that you’re the early human ancestor, spending your life with other apes on the African savanna. The majority of your day is spent trying to find food within the same area. You may explore the areas near where you live to find food there, but you don’t. Why not?
For starters, you have no idea what is waiting for you there. There could be delicious fruits, but there could also be wild predators waiting to attack you in a barren field. You know where you live is secure, so why would you risk the unknown?
This situation demonstrates the way we evolved. Those that decided to stay safe lived long enough to pass their genes onto their children. Therefore, humans have evolved to be a species that prefers certainty. But there’s a trade-off. If we don’t leave our comfort zones, we won’t be able to explore the fertile lands with juicy fruits—or anything beneficial.
It is a well-known fact that humans tend to avoid uncertainty. Children tend to get scared in the dark with no light. The instinctual fear stems from our lack of ability to perceive things in the dark. Since we are not able to see our surroundings, we feel as if there is a predator waiting for us somewhere in the dark.
Growing up, we learn that dark rooms are usually quite safe. Yet, our wish to be a hundred percent sure is still there, as a study from University College London shows. A group of participants was told that they might get an electric shock while others were informed that they would get an electric shock. Those that knew they would definitely get shocked were less stressed than those who had a 50% possibility.
Unfortunately, our tendency to evade the unknown usually hinders us by making us cling to our pre-established assumptions. We can only advance if we embrace uncertainty. A good method to achieve this goal is to stop before reacting to an experience.
For instance, let’s say someone bumps into you. Roughly. You might be inclined to think “What a jerk!” instinctively. This reaction might feel justified, but it is not an extensive interpretation. If you pause for a minute and think about the unknown, you will see that you are unaware of the whole story. The stranger might be in a rush to do something beneficial for others, or even, he may be struggling with balance problems.
In both cases, if you realize that you don’t know the whole story, you can embrace other possibilities about the world. Being open-minded is crucial to be creative.
Chapter 9 – The ecology of innovation is the harmony of play and efficiency.
A group of scientists at the Valley Life Sciences building at the University of California watches a tiny cockroach. The cockroach is running back and forth across a table. This may sound weird but, it seems that the little cockroach has a lot to learn.
The researchers study this little critter to understand how it skitters with such agility. The research is done out of curiosity, but on the way, they explore valuable things that can be of use. Indeed, the motions of the cockroach inspired the lab’s greatest creation: RHex, a bionic robot that is created to crawl through battle zones.
This lab achieved success as it used the ideal ecology of innovation –questioning first and defining the answers later.
The majority of people misunderstand the basis of innovation. They believe that new ideas are the result of a particular goal in mind. On the contrary, having a goal in mind means you already have many assumptions about the topic. And, as you can guess, assumptions hinder our creativity.
Innovation should be approached like play. Instead of planning something and thinking about it, you should just enjoy the activities for what they are. This mindset is called “blue-sky thinking”. With blue-sky thinking, you tend to go after your curiosity, try new ways, and finally reach brand-new ideas.
After coming up with many original concepts, you may begin to refine them and find out which ones are beneficial. This phase is similar to evolution. Species first mutate and then undergo alterations in brand-new ways. Then, natural selection takes over. Changes that were not beneficial are eliminated. Good changes stick around and pass with genes onto the following generations.
This cycle works in any field. You may be a scientist studying something in a lab or an artist trying to find your own art style, the first thing you should do is to begin your work with an open mind. So, to be innovative, deviate from the pre-established norms. You can worry about the details in the future.
Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently by Beau Lotto Book Review
Even though we think we see the objective reality, what we see is just a distorted version of the world around us. Our perception of the world is dependent on the restricted window of the five senses. Besides that, how our brains recognize these sensory elements is restricted by what is inside of our mind and our past experiences. To become creative, our first responsibility is to recognize our thought patterns, avoid the pre-established assumptions about situations, and embrace the unknown.