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30 October 2007

Does Your Brain Play Tricks On You?

Science tells us that some counterintuitive things are all too real. There are things in this world that happen that just don’t seem to make sense – you’d think that the reverse or opposite result would be what you should get. But they do happen and they do work. Take the bumblebee as an example. Scientists and engineers determined that it was impossible for the bumblebee to fly based on the knowledge that they had at the time. Obviously they were wrong about that one. Good thing, too, or we’d have no honey.

Human vision is another funny thing. According to everything we know about light and lenses, light will enter our eye through the lens, which inverts the ray so that an upside-down image appears on our retina. Our brains work in such a way that these upside-down images look right side up.

Ponder this for a moment: the lenses in our eyes naturally create an inverted or upside down image. Yet somehow, our brain compensates for this.

Up and down are relative, after all. So are left, right, north, south, east, and west. Is it possible that our brains are fooling us into something comfortable because we can’t take the truth, or function otherwise? For example, at the moment I am sitting on my couch and typing in this article into my computer. But what if I’m really upside down? How do I handle that when everything else in my life supports the idea that I am actually right side up? Is this the only way that my mind can
cope with this bizarre image?

I don’t really believe my brain - and that “down” is really “up”. I’m willing to believe that my brain is showing me what is real despite how the light hits my optic nerve. But can I really say for sure that the opposite isn’t true?

Interestingly enough, scientists who have conducted vision experiments discovered something interesting about this reverse image processing. By providing subjects with special glasses that eliminate the image inversion, something interesting happens over a couple of days: your brain retrains itself to perceive the world as you did before, so everything seems normal again. Despite the oddity of this phenomenon, it does seem to support the “inverted image” concept.

The important thing to take from this example is that our brains have mechanisms to correct or interpret what we see into a familiar form. However, the example of the bumblebee suggests that we should be cautious of imperfect knowledge when we try to interpret things where scientific theory lead to the opposite, or inverted conclusion that empirical study would show. Sometimes our “knowledge” leads us to conclusions that seem rational, but they defy the evidence that lies before us by deducing the opposite, or inversion of the reality that we can see.

Sometimes it’s a good exercise to take the assumptions we make in our lives, turn them upside down, and see what happens. Perhaps we’ll only reprove our assumptions 99% of the time. But imagine what treasures we might find if we challenge our assumptions and find them wrong. More importantly, think of the disasters that might be prevented by obtaining an accurate point of view before problems strike.

This article was written by Mark Dykeman from The Uncanny Broadcasting Brain. Mark broadcasts live from his brain several times a week where you can "catch the brainwave" and join his thoughts and ideas. Thumbnail image credit. If you are interested in contributing to the thinking process and become a guest writer on The Thinking Blog, find out more information here and be my guest!

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