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Misperception - a quick primer

Misperceived treeMany reports of apparent paranormal phenomena have been found, on investigation, to be explained by misperception. This phenomenon can substitute a poorly seen object with something different in someone's visual field, before they are even consciously aware of it. It is thus seen by the witness as entirely real.

Misperception arises because of the way our brains work. The scene in front of us at any given time contains too much information to be processed by our brains to give us an accurate, up to date image quickly enough to be any use. So, our brains and eyes take various short cuts to give us a 'good enough' idea of what is in front of us (see misperception). In particular, anything not well seen is likely to be substituted with an object from visual memory (see visual substitutions).

It is important to realise that visual substitutions occur BEFORE we are consciously aware of seeing that object, so we accept them as completely real and true! The original object becomes invisible - we only see the substitute! Such misperception happens all the time, in peripheral vision for instance (see peripheral vision) where we have lower resolution monochrome views (like the pic, right). Most of the time we don't notice misperception because our brains are good at guessing what is really there when doing a substitution.

Sometimes substitutions produce oddities that we notice (they 'feel wrong'). We might see a tree in peripheral vision, for instance, which is substituted with a human figure (the photo above shows a tree that was actually misperceived as a figure - see here). If the presence of such a figure is highly unlikely (in a locked room, for instance), we might decide it is really a ghost! This impression is further enhanced because, on turning to look at the misperceived object and see it better, our brains recognise it for what it really is and the substitute (the 'figure') vanishes!

It has been known for a long time that many, even most, reports of anomalous phenomena sightings could be explained by misperception. However, it is only recent scientific research which has revealed that people really do SEE what they report! They don't see a tree that vaguely resembles a human figure and apply a 'vivid imagination', they really SEE the figure (a substitution), often including details like clothing and facial expression. This means that misperception now can explain some sightings that before could only realistically be hallucination or real paranormal phenomena.

The section above is just a brief primer for misperception - follow the links within it for much more detail. The section below, as well as answering questions, contains lots of 'fun facts' about misperception.

Misperceptions about misperception; frequently put objections

Sometimes misperception is dismissed as a possible cause of a reported paranormal experience because of misconceptions about what it is and what it is capable of. Here are some of the commonly heard objections and the answers to them which should help clarify matters:

  • objection: misperception is all about optical illusions and mind tricks
  • answer: optical illusions are artificial (hardly ever seen in nature) ways that exploit the way perception functions to deceive us - they are truly 'mind tricks'*. They are usually persistent, if seen at all, and affect most people. By contrast, misperception is a part of the normal way our perception works. In peripheral vision, for instance, where things are poorly seen, many of the objects apparently there are no better than good guesses by our brains which may, or may not, be the same as reality. Misperceptions tend to be short lived as, when something is seen in better viewing conditions, it is seen for what it really is (the misperception is 'broken'). Unlike persistent optical illusions, once 'broken' it can be difficult, or impossible, to see the same misperception again.*
  • objection: a misperception is just a simulacrum
  • answer: objects only need to look vaguely like something else to produce a visual substitution. A simulacrum may closely resemble another object but you don't actually SEE that other object instead. With misperception, the original object disappears from view completely to be replaced by the brain's substitute image in your visual field. Because the visual substitution happens before we are even consciously aware of seeing the original object, we only ever see the substitute and usually accept it as totally real.
  • objection: we would notice if we are misperceiving
  • answer: we misperceive all the time but because our brains show us what we expect to see, we don't notice anything odd. Someone aware of the possibility of misperceiving may notice them but most never people do, even when pointed out.
  • objection: misperceptions are created in our brains so, not being real, they must be easy to spot
  • answer: our brains create misperceptions BEFORE we are consciously aware of seeing them so we believe what we are seeing is real (as if they came from our eyes). We do not notice misperceptions while we're having them. In certain cases we might spot them afterwards if something then appears strange, like the misperception disappears when looked at more closely. Misperceptions originate from our own visual memory so they look completely real to us.
  • objection: people can misperceive any object as any other
  • answer: our brains do their best guesses when misperceiving which means they are constrained by the shape, size, position, motion, colour, texture etc of the object being misperceived. For instance, a tree will only be misperceived as a human figure if it happens to resemble one in size, shape, position etc. Such a tree will never be misperceived as a bus or crane!
  • objection: you cannot see 'detail' in a misperception
  • answer: this is partially true in that the objects that we see when misperceiving appear to be 'generic' rather than a specific memory of a particular object seen in the past**. However, when trying to remember, confabulation and suggestion can provide spurious detail turning a generic human figure into a particular individual with specific clothes, facial expression, etc
  • objection: aren't misperceptions supposed to be 'poorly visible' ?
  • answer: many misperceptions are caused by poorly-seen objects (though other things like strong patterns of light and shade can also cause them). However, the object that is substituted for them comes from visual memory and so can look perfectly normal and contain detail. While misperceiving you don't see the real object causing it at all, just its substitute, which will usually look perfectly natural and real and be readily visible.
  • objection: as a brain phenomenon, misperception (like hallucination) cannot be shared by multiple witnesses
  • answer: this is true but multiple witnesses may all misperceive the same object. In a group of witnesses, some may misperceive the same general thing, a 'generic' human figure** for instance, while disagreeing on its details. The object they are misperceiving puts limitations on what each will see. So a short, fat tree stump will look like a short, overweight figure to anyone misperceiving it. Others in the same group of witnesses may not misperceive anything at all. This is what typically happens when a group of witnesses report seeing a ghost - some see it, some don't and those that see it often disagree on detail.
  • objection: misperceptions only last a few seconds and cannot explain prolonged sightings
  • answer: most misperception sightings are short-lived because the witness subsequently gets a better look, so 'breaking' the misperception. However, in some cases it may not be possible to get a better look, by increasing lighting or approaching the object, for instance, so misperception can be prolonged sometimes. Also, some people seem to see misperceptions more strongly than others, sometimes prolonging the effect.
  • objection: you need a solid object to be present to be misperceived
  • answer: it is possible to get a misperception from a pattern of light and shadow, particularly when there is high contrast, so you don't always need an actual physical object to misperceive.
  • objection: only stationary objects can be misperceived
  • answer: moving objects can be misperceived though it is rarer because the conditions for the misperception are more likely to lead to a 'break'
  • objection: 'real' phenomena sightings feel and look different
  • answer: sightings which are known to be misperceptions have certainly felt just as 'weird' and 'spooky' as any other reports. There is no obvious difference between known misperception reports and others which have not been explained. Misperceptions only tend to be noticed because they 'feel wrong', a common characteristic of many anomalous reports.
  • objection: you need special lighting conditions to misperceive
  • answer: what you need is for an object to be poorly seen for it to be misperceived. It could be distant, in poor light, out of focus, in high contrast conditions, in fog or mist, seen in peripheral vision, etc. If the lighting changes significantly, it can certainly stop something being misperceived, particularly if you start to see it well or shadows give a different apparent shape. So, while misperception is sensitive to lighting, there are other important factors involved too.
  • objection: misperception only happens to some people in special circumstances
  • answer: we all misperceive all the time. It is part of the normal way perception works. It is only noticed occasionally and then, because it is unfamiliar to most people, sometimes interpreted as paranormal.

*Postscript 1: Why misperceptions 'break' while optical illusions persist

An optical illusions works because it depends on the way perception operates in our brains, eg. the way we handle perspective. This is a 'hard-wired' mechanism in the brain that does not change so, if you see an optical illusion once, you are always likely to see it. By contrast, misperception is caused by our brain's 'best guess' at what it is seeing. If we get more, or at least different, information on the object being misperceived, the best guess will change. And the 'best guess' does not usually 'go back' to a previous guess. So once a misperception is 'broken' (ie. you see the underlying object instead of its substitute), it never goes back. Once you've lost a misperception in a particular situation, it's usually gone forever.

** Postscript 2: Why misperceptions don't look like specific objects we've seen before

How do you know that an object you've never seen before is a chair? We do not keep a memory of every chair we've ever seen and compare it with each one in turn. This would take too long, require too much memory and only produce a match if we see a chair identical to one we've seen before. Instead, we have a visual memory of a 'generic' chair - an object with the properties that distinguish it as a chair, like a flat seating pad for instance. Since what we see when we misperceive is not a real human figure, for instance, our brains substitute in a 'generic' person rather than a specific individual we've seen. This is why it is usually difficult to recognise ghosts as any particular individual.

© Maurice Townsend 2011