The strange story of perception

Have you wondered how long it takes for that scent of morning coffee to reach your brain and create pleasure? Or come across the adage: you never hear the bullet? Conscious perception has some strange quirks.

There is a common game: Two people face one another, each with a hand outstretched. One tries to slap the other's hand down before they pull away. There is much bluffing with body language, but the active slapper usually wins. Why? For younger players there is similar but group game called bullfrog (text form here). A circle of children with arms outstretched transfer a palm slap around the circle until a word is reached in the chant, when the receiver tries to pull away before the slap makes contact with their palm.

Have you ever wondered why, in field athletics, a starter gun is used instead of a flag-fall or light change, such as we see in car races?

The answer to both puzzles has to do with the time it takes for information to enter our mind, be processed and interpreted, then send action signals to muscles. We are talking about hundreds of milliseconds, but that is enough to produce a weird result.

Abstract image of 'winged clocks'

In the best scenario, it takes about 80 milliseconds to perceive anything - that is, to become actively aware of it - which as an aside, means that we humans actually live in the past. In terms of sensory systems, let's look at that starter pistol example. The bang gets processed in the brain a tiny bit faster (160 milliseconds) than a flash of light from that same source (190 milliseconds). This occurs even though the light reaches the eyes a fraction of a second before the sound reaches the ears, from a reasonably close source. Weird, hey? This was discovered by David Eagleman when experimenting with runners, and is discussed in his book, The Brain: The Story of You.

This difference, in the way our sensory systems handle information, is why we still use sound as the signal to begin a race in the Olympic Games. Using light would add extra time to the recorded race duration for athletes, because they would take longer to start, disadvantaging them in the league tables.

In everyday life we don’t notice these minute differences in perception unless we are a long way from a source of light and sound, when the difference in the speed of light and sound becomes so large as to be obvious. You might recall a time when a friend clapped their hands at the other end of a playing field and you saw the action before the sound arrived. But back to the situation where the source of sound and vision is close by. If we did notice the difference that exists in the processing of our sensory system, our subjective reality would fall apart, like a film with sound and vision out of sync. To cope with this, the brain adjusts sensory perception so that it seems as if the information is arriving at the same moment. Strange but true. However, it is possible to change our perceptual abilities.

The strange phenomenon of time dilation is where time seems to slow down; we see and sense things happening around us in what appears to be slow motion. Time does not actually slow down though, or our movements speed up. It is just a perceptual thing; but there is a change in the brain and mind - greater attention to detail - and this can give an athlete or ball catcher the edge in a game. They actually have the subjective experience of more time when positioning for the best catch.

The effect is also seen, strangely, in some who meditate.

So, where does this time dilation effect come from? The answer is, using more of the brain at the same time; breaking down divisions within the brain. Imagine a tiny grey dot flashed up on a computer screen in front of you for a fraction of a second. Have you seen it or did you imagine it? Volunteers exposed to this protocol were asked this question and had to rate their confidence, that they had actually seen the dot, on a scale of one to five. The research team then used brain scans (fMRI data) from those who were very confident, to see how their brains differed from the rest. Those who were correctly aware of having seen the dot showed greater global connectivity between brain regions than those who were unaware.

By calming the mind and letting what is called the default mode network become the main operating system for our brain, we derive such benefit. It allows this extra connectivity to occur, which provides us with better ability to perceive subtle cues. This approach is particularly important in improving intuition and for sensing body-change, which tells us something needs investigating, and leads to better decision-making.

Till next time – B.W. Cribb

#Reality #Perception #MakingBetterDesicions #DesignYourMind

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