Why We Don't See the Same Reality

You may remember one of the most viral internet memes of the decade, known as the dress. On February 26, 2015 a faded photograph of a dress went vertically viral, meaning its popularity went well past the typical bell curve virality. A galvanizing debate flew across the globe: Some said the dress was white and gold was others swore it was black and blue. Viewers were adamant that their perception was factual reality. No one was exempt, Kim Kardashian saw it as white and gold, her husband Kanye and his frenemy Taylor Swift saw it as blue and black. Within one week of posting on BuzzFeed the article received 37 million views. The dress, purchased by Cecilia Bleasdale at Roman Originals for a wedding in Scotland, is in fact blue and black. But the actual dress was not at issue, it was the photo that launched the debate, and it was the photo that everyone either saw as one color or the other.

The original photo of “the dress.”

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As designers it is worthwhile to understand how people perceive objects. And to understand why no one perceives the same object the same way.

It turns out that reality and fact is tied to perception, and perception is linked to the way an individual brain receives information. And it is within visual illusions where we get an idea of just how differently we can perceive the very same thing completely differently.

And this when we become obsessed, and unnerved. As Taylor Swift tweeted when she heard about the dress debate, “I feel like it’s a trick somehow. I feel confused and scared.” It is scary when we learn that our reality is not shared. It behoves us as artists and designers to understand that everyone brings their own individual view to everything they perceive, and we need to keep that fact in mind as we create. In line with this, we need to respect that others will hold their point of view as reality. As the saying goes, “seeing is believing.” So what is really going on when we perceive?

The first thing we must know is that our perception of the world is not accurate nor factual. There is a lot we cannot sense. For instance, we can only detect part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

It used to be thought that things in the world present themselves to our brain as they are, but in fact our perceptions are made of conclusions that our brains construct. Meaning, we bring our experiences and thoughts and selves to the moment of perception just as much as the object does. This might remind you of the age old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” We do know that color doesn’t exist without someone there to see it. What seems real is in fact something our brain constructs based on prior experience.

In many ways the brain learns to understand its environment much in the same way machine learning–artificial intelligence–does. That is, the brain makes best guesses about an object based on its prior experience as well as the sensory inputs coming to it. If the guess is wrong, the brain corrects itself and stores that new knowledge. This is why our prior life experience is so influential and important — it literally helps us predict and construct our current realities.

So, instead of objects–their color and shape–reaching us as sensory input that we then absorb, we are constructing a prediction of the object within our brain first, and then quickly judging or perceiving the object. There is a terrific example of how this works, noted by Anil Seth in a recent Scientific American article. Take a look at the image here.

You might see random black and white patterns.

Now look at the photo near the bottom of this article.

Now you will see that the black and white pattern is an object, a toddler. The sensory input (i.e., the black and white image) is exactly the same but the way the brain sees it has changed dramatically. The brain is now making a different set of predictions about what is causing the pattern. As Seth notes in his article, “All that has changed are your brain’s predictions about the causes of these sensory signals. You have acquired a new high-level perceptual expectation, and this is what changes what you consciously see.”

Some scientists and experts refer to this theory of perception as “controlled hallucination” and Seth also notes our reality might be what happens when we agree on our hallucinations. We generally consider most things in our worlds as being “real” even if they are constructions (hallucinations) created by our brain. In order to function normally in our day to day we have to regard things and people as “real.”

And this is precisely where we get tripped up. We assume that our reality is everyone’s reality. And when a visual illusion like the dress comes along we are suddenly thrown into the realization of just how differently we see things. And how closely our perception is tied to our past experience. According to Seth, the explanation for the dress debate is that those who spend more hours in sunlight see the photo of the dress as white and gold, and those who spend more time awake at night under artificial lights experience the photo as black and blue.

Photo credit (includes black and white photo above as well): Teufel, C et al. Shift towards prior knowledge confers a perceptual advantage in early psychosis and psychosis-prone healthy individuals. PNAS; 12 Oct 2015

I think recognizing that we hold onto our individual realities tightly because they are a part of our own personal experiences will help us acknowledge and respect the idea that people will not always perceive things the same way as we do.


Header photo credit: Fiestoforo – Own work, CC. The contrasting colors of the header image give the illusion of motion.

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Source: core77

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