One of my favorite shows is called “Brain Games.” Each half-hour episode shows volunteers and the viewers audio and visual games that show how our brain interprets sensory input. In short, the brain doesn’t merely hear, taste, smell, or see anything as it is, but tries instead to interpret what it senses. Even then, it’s not a true representation of the real world.
Let’s take a look at the ear. Sound waves flow into the ear canal which causes little bones to vibrate inside. The brain then interprets the bones’ vibrations as specific sounds. Even then, we’re not hearing the sound itself, but the ear’s response to the sounds. The brain also tries to attach meaning to those sounds. Where it’s coming from, and what’s causing it. For instance, that roar we hear isn’t simply a roar. It could be a lion, a fierce wind, or an airplane flying overhead. If it doesn’t sound immediately familiar, we will continue to listen until we can say, “Oh! I know what that is. That’s a train going by.” We’re not like a tape recorder that doesn’t care what the sound is. It simply records it. Humans, on the other hand, try to give every sensory input some kind of context.
We went traveling one day and I saw a big orange blob in the middle of a cultivated field. My first thought was school bus, because the color was similar. But then I thought, “Why would there be a school bus in the middle of the field?” I stared at that thing for as long as I could, but I never did figure out what it really was.
How often do we look at clouds and find shapes and faces in them? Because the brain wants everything to be familiar, to look like something it’s seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt before. It’s a survival mechanism, so that way it can quickly determine if it’s harmful or beneficial.
And because it tries to give everything context instead of accepting that there may be no context, or the context is beyond our current experience – like the orange blob in the middle of the field – it sometimes lies to us. My brain grabbed the first object from my experience that matched closest to what it saw – a school bus – so that’s what I thought I saw at first. And yet, it probably wasn’t a school bus. My brain lied to me.
Some other examples are optical illusions and magic tricks.
Here’s a video (excerpt from “Brain Games”) to further prove my point:
Note: You can watch the first four seasons on Netflix.