The big idea: Do we experience the world the same way? | Wrote

IImagine you and I are walking together along Brighton’s waterfront on a sunny day, and we both stop to stare at the deep blue sky. It’s a beautiful sight, but do we have the same experience? Do you see the same blue that I see?

It’s easy to assume we do. After all, we both use the word “blue,” and color seems to be a property of the sky, not of our minds. But the science of cognition – how the brain interprets sensory information to produce objects, people, and places – suggests otherwise. Just as we are all different on the outside, our internal experiences are likely to be different, too.

It may seem as if the world pours itself directly into our minds through the transparent windows of our eyes and ears. But psychologists have long known that perception is not just “reading” sensory information. We are deeply affected by context. From the effect of shadows on how we perceive surface brightness, to our tendency to interpret facial expressions depending on what we think is happening, context permeates all of our conscious experiences, and it does so in a way we never realize. From.

Some researchers, including myself, go further. Rather than context affecting only the contents of perception, the idea here – which builds on the legacy of the great German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz – is that perceptual experience is constructed from top to bottom, with incoming sensory cues (bottom-up) mostly fine-tuning the ‘best’ The brain’s guesses of what’s out there. From this point of view, the brain is constantly making predictions about the reasons for the sensory information it receives, and uses that information to update its predictions. In other words, we live in a “controlled hallucination” that remains tied to reality in a dance of prediction and correction, but which never matches that reality.

The astonishing consequence of this is that because we all have different brains, and we make slightly different guesses, we’ll all have different perceptual experiences as well—even if we’re faced with the same objective external reality. Just as the blue of the sky may be different for each of us, so may all of our experiences be different – do peaches taste the same for me as for you? Unlike external differences, differences in perception are private and subjective – hidden under the common language we use to describe them.

Well, not always. Some types of cognitive diversity are very familiar. Descriptions of hallucinations and delusions go back thousands of years, but are usually interpreted as failures of perception against the norm of the idealized normative way of perceiving the world.

Recently, the concept of “neurodiversity” has called due attention to the radically different ways in which some people experience their worlds. This framework emphasizes that these differences are not deficits, although this focus is often lost because neurodiversity is typically associated with medically specific conditions such as autism or ADHD, which are often thought to be difficult to manage. (There are some exceptions. Synesthesia—often described as a “mixing of the senses,” where you can taste colors or see sounds—is often seen as enhancing creativity and cognitive ability, though the evidence is mixed.)

What is missing from the idea of ​​neurodiversity is the potential for each of us to see the world in our own way, albeit not so noticeably so that differences in how we act or describe our experiences float.

Sometimes the spell is broken and we come to terms with our perceptions of the constructions that they are. A few years ago, a A poorly exposed image of a dress Torn through social media because half the world saw it one way (white and gold) while the other half saw it another way (blue and black). People in each camp did not believe that another explanation was possible. This may be very interesting, but it does not seem to lead to a broader understanding that the way we see (or hear, smell, taste, or touch) things may differ from person to person.

A new project I’m involved in, called Perception Census, aims to change all of this. Developed by a team that includes scientists, philosophers, and artists, the goal is to identify the hidden landscape of perceptual diversity. It consists of engaging, fun, easy and fast to complete Online experiments and interactive illusions. In addition to contributing valuable data, participants can learn about their own powers of perception and how they relate to others. Importantly, the statistics of perception goes beyond visual perception, and explores sound and music, emotions and how we experience over time. Anyone over the age of 18 can participate and the first results will be released by the end of the year.

Highlighting our internal diversity can be as transformative for society as recognizing our diversity externally visible. Just as there is no “best” skin tone, there is no single way of perceiving the world that others can compare to and find willing. And unlike the concept of neurodiversity, which tends to be reserved for certain circumstances, cognitive diversity applies to all of us.

A greater appreciation for this should help us develop humility about our views. Just as it helps us to sometimes question our social and political beliefs, it helps to know that others can literally see things differently than we do, and that these differences may develop into different beliefs and behaviors. It may also be that engaging people in simple exercises that reveal the complex nature of cognition will open their minds to other perspectives and help resolve disagreements.

Mostly, though, understanding perceptual diversity makes the world a richer and more wonderful place. Next time you go for a walk by the sea or through a city, try to visualize all the unique and personal inner universes in the minds of all the people around you. There is not one beautiful world out there, there are many.

Anil Seth Mr Neuroscience at the University of Sussex and author Being You – A New Science of Consciousness (Faber).

in-depth reading

Other Minds: Octopuses and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey Smith (HarperCollins, £9.99)

The Brain – 10 Things You Should Know By Sophie Scott (Orion, £9.99)

Wednesday Indigo Blue: Discovering the Synesthesia Brain by Richard E. Sitovic and David M. Eagleman (MIT, £30)

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