Seeing the World As It Isn't | Daniel Simons video transcript

I’d like you to take a look around you. Take in all the sights, the sounds, if you’re unlucky, the smells. You feel like you’re seeing the world in all its completeness and detail. You feel like you’re seeing the world as it is. But that experience as it turns out is an illusion. What you actually experience is what your mind and your brain give you, it’s an alternate reality.

Take a look at this image. This is by Julian Beever who is a British artist. Now this is an illusion, this is a nice painting of a swimming pool, it looks like it has depth, looks like there’s a woman sitting in the pool. Looks like Julian Beever on the upper right is dipping his foot into the pool and as he’s doing this you feel like you’re seeing the world as it is. But of course it’s not, it’s chalk art on a sidewalk. It just gives the impression of depth. And this is a double illusion because as you’re looking at this you feel like “Okay yes I’m seeing a painting of chalk art on a sidewalk” but what you’re actually seeing is a really weird view of a chalk painting on a sidewalk. You’re seeing a chalk painting on a sidewalk from the one view that gives you the impression of depth, that gives you the impression that you’re looking at a swimming pool and from any other perspective it looks much more like this. It’s really substantially distorted. The key is that we feel that we’re seeing it as it is but we’re actually not.

Let me give you another example, this is from my colleague Bart Anderson and what you see here are 2 sets of chess pieces. The ones on the top look light and the ones on the bottom dark and you can’t help but see them that way even though that’s not at all what you’re actually seeing. Here is what you’re actually seeing, I’m just removing the background and when I remove the background you can see that both sets of pieces are the same kind of mottled grey and every piece on the top is exactly the same as the one directly below it. Now you know that of course, you’ll be able to see them as they are when I show you the same image again right? Nope. Once you go back to the background, you can’t help but see the image as it isn’t. Your visual system is giving you the impression that you’re seeing light pieces and dark pieces, when you’re actually seeing the same thing in both cases. What’s happening here is that your visual system is taking into account not just the brightness of those individual pieces but the brightness of the surfaces immediately around those pieces and it takes that into account in a way that’s actually really useful for us most of the time. It gives us the ability to see a piece of paper with black ink on it the same inside in a dark room, the same outside in a really bright light but it’s not giving us the world exactly as it is. It’s using a bag of tricks, its using a set of shortcuts to give us the world as we need it.

Now what makes visual illusions like this so cool? There are 2 reasons. One is that it’s surprising but that’s not terrible satisfying. The more interesting reason is that. It’s giving us the impression that we are seeing the world as it is and it’s violating that impression. It’s breaking our intuition. It’s forcing us to confront the fact that we aren’t seeing the world as it actually is.

Let me give you another example of this. This is from Bill Geisler and Jeffrey Perry. This is a nice picture of flowers. I’m going to show you a bee and I want you to follow this bee around the image with your eyes. So track the bee as it moves through the image. So it’s just going to wander around the image here and you’re able to follow it just fine and eventually it’s going to come back to where it started. And we’re back. Now I want to show you exactly the same sequence except this time instead of tracking the bee with your eyes, I want you to maintain your focus on the bright yellow flower. And notice what happens to that flower as the bee gets further and further away. It gets blurrier and blurrier. It’s exactly the same sequence, you’re seeing the exactly the same thing as you did the first time except that this time you notice that it’s getting blurry. Whereas the first time you didn’t notice that anything was changing about the image at all. Why is that? The reason is that you’re actually only taking in detail from a tiny tiny subset of your visual world at any one instant. In fact your taking in detail from a subset about the size of that bee. If you stick your arm out and stick your thumb up, you’re taking in high resolution information only from the about the width of your thumb. Beyond that it becomes progressively blurrier but we don’t notice this at all. Why not? Well we move our eyes 3 or 4 times a second when we’re looking at the world. We don’t realise that we’re doing that and every where we look at that instant, we are seeing everything in detail. If something is in our periphery and it’s potentially interesting we look over there and see it in detail so we get the false impression that we’re seeing everything in detail.

Let’s take a look at this issue. We assume that everyone is seeing the world, exactly as it is and this has profound implications for how we think about the world around us. Despite differences in our knowledge and beliefs and expectations, we feel like we’re seeing the same things as everybody else. I’ve used visual illusions as a way of illustrating how we don’t see the world exactly as it is but these sorts of illusions are not just limited to our visual system, they also affect the way we think, the way we remember, we way we reason. We think we see more than we do. We think we see all the detail around us. We don’t. But we also think that we remember more than we do and that we know more than we do and these illusions lead to a real substantial problem. They lead us to think that everyone is seeing the same thing that we are, when in reality 2 people looking at exactly the same world could be taking in different information at the same time. Now what does that mean? It means that any time you have to communicate, any time you’re trying to be a trainer or a CEO or leader or you’re trying to lecture or teach, you have to take into account the fact that your knowledge and your experiences and what you see are going to be different from those of the people in your audience. All of advertising depends on exactly that principle, you have to know what your audience is going to see in the advertisement.

Now the problem is that we all share one thing, even though we don’t necessarily see the world the same, we all share one thing. We share this illusion that we see the world as everybody else and only by testing your knowledge and testing what you’re actually seeing, just like your do with a visual illusion, do you realise that you’re not actually seeing the world as it actually is and in fact we don’t all see the same thing. Only by testing your knowledge can you see the world as it actually is.

Seeing the World As It Isn't | Daniel Simons video

Back to Innovative problem solving