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June 14, 2004

Perception - Some thoughts

Perception is really interesting. Our senses, primarily our eyes and ears and to a lesser extent our nose, skin, and tongue, feed us signals. We try to make 'sense' out of it all by constructing mental models of what we think those signals actually represent. When we succeed in putting together a model that doesn't consistent break down, we put a label on it called 'reality' and then try to judge other signals or behavior based on our model.

If something fits our past experience, then it reaffirms our model, and we say that it 'makes sense.' On the other hand, if something doesn't fit our mental model, then more often than not we are likely to reject it. We say that it doesn't make sense, or that the other person doesn't have 'common sense'.

But how accurate is our 'perception' to begin with? Suppose we see a drawing as it evolves. First we might see some shape like this-


At first glance it's almost impossible for us to figure out what is being drawn. It might be a person, or a map, or almost anything. This particular shape kind of resembles the map outline of a small country.

Then as the drawing evolves we get more and more information to try and fit into our mental model-


And, based on our past experience, we quickly recognize that a small black dot inside a larger oval shape is often a creature's eye. Based on this new information, we narrow the field to 'creatures'. The unknown figure might be an animal, a fish, or even an alien from another galaxy - but at least we 'know' that it is some sort of creature.


Now we have an ear! That narrows the field considerably. We go from the universe of all possible creatures down to only those with ears of some type. This is beginning to resemble my dog - Austin...


Then we get more information - this time the new hint is tusks. Immediately we know that it's some sort of elephant.

At this point, most people feel confident that they know the answer - its an elephant, and they already know what an elephant is. They mentally stick an 'elephant' label on it, and stop looking.

This raises a lot of questions for me -

  • What is the minimum amount of information for us to make a match?
  • Are some people more likely than others to match quickly with an absolute minimum of information?
  • How often do we mis-match?
  • What do we ignore when we mis-match?
  • What opportunities do we fail to recognize because we match too quickly or easily?
  • How far can we stretch the limits of perception and recognition?
  • How much of perception is based on cultural and social conditioning?
  • How transportable is perception across language and cultural borders?
  • Do inventors and some outstanding business people have a mental matching problem that causes them to look deeper than others?

June 14, 2004 | Permalink


Perception includes possibilities beyond which we may comprehend. Your drawing is at once a person, a map, an animal, a creature, an alien, an elephant. To observe its development is to see it in evolution. Before it has achieved the state of "is." It is our biological imperative to make sense out of sense information. It is how we survive.

Posted by: [email protected] | Feb 12, 2011 3:50:32 AM

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