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BECA 390 2018: Lesson One

Swimming in a Sea of Information

Nancy Reist

on 5 July 2018

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Transcript of BECA 390 2018: Lesson One

Lesson One
BECA 390 Summer 2018

Perception Stage One: Selection
Perception Stage Two: Organization
An understanding of the way our brains process stimuli can help us:
better manage the barrage of information that confronts us every day
communicate our ideas effectively with others
The process of perception takes place in 3 stages:
is the stage where we filter out the majority of the stimuli that surround us. We need to do this in order to function, but we are unable to perceive many important stimuli
is the stage where we group the stimuli we are able to perceive into categories that make sense for us. We do this using frameworks called

explains how some of these
work. We are prone to stereotypes during this stage.
is the stage where we attach meaning to the stimuli we have perceived and organized. Interpretation errors include prejudice, projection, and implied causality.
We now know that our brains retain some of their plasticity throughout our lives. This means that everything we do actually shapes our brains.

After you watch the required David Eagleman TED talk video that follows, you may review parts of this lesson by dragging around the lesson and zooming in and out. Or you may move quickly through using the arrow keys.
Lesson One Overview
Welcome to BECA 390:
The Age of Information
This class is designed to help students explore the complex relationships between technology, the media, political and economic systems, and our personal and social lives.
The idea that our experience of the world is not as accurate as it seems may be disconcerting, particularly when we realize that these distortions may be contributing to misunderstandings. But the good news is that we can work with this information to train our brains to respond more appropriately to the environment. One of the most exciting recent discoveries in neural science is the fact that our brains continue to reshape themselves, even in adulthood. This
is what enables humans to evolve and respond to our surroundings. Our brains are definitely more malleable during the critical period of childhood. Babies' brains change with nearly everything they experience. But we now know that our thoughts and actions continue to influence our brains throughout our lives. Although the process is gradual, we are literally shaping our brain with our daily thoughts and actions.

We will conclude this week's lesson with a longer video that discusses some of the exciting things we know about the brain and perception. But first, let's review the material we have covered so far.
Perception Stage Three: Interpretation
To move through the
lessons, please use the arrow keys to move backwards and forwards.

The videos in the lesson

are required
unless otherwise indicated. They do NOT autoplay, however. To play the videos you must click on the play arrow with your cursor. The videos are also linked on iLearn.
We group things that share common properties, even if they are not next to each other. So if a group of people in a room are wearing the same sweatshirt, we may think they are fans of the same team. Things that do not share these properties tend to stand out.
When objects move together, our brains link them. So, for example, if a group of people arrive at an event at the same time, we are inclined to group them together.
Common Fate Principle
If some objects are aligned in the same way, our brains link them. Our eyes also tend to follow the line. What ARE those fishing looking at?
Our brains fill in gaps to create full pictures, even when pieces are missing. The primary reason people have trouble with the puzzle from the beginning of the lesson is that we have a strong tendency to see the nine dots as a grid with a boundary around them. This keeps us from "thinking outside the box."
Gestalt Theory
Gestalt Theory
is one of the primary ideas about how we organize and group our perceptions. The theory suggests there are several principles that guide the way we organize stimuli.
One of the most important aspects of organization is prioritizing which stimuli should draw our attention first. Some stimuli stand out as the
, attracting our conscious attention. Others blend into the
, so that we may barely notice them. This may be influenced by physiological factors, the gestalt principles we have discussed, or personal experience. This famous example can be seen as a vase or as two faces.

Proximity Principle
Similarity Principle
We tend to group objects and believe they are connected when they are near each other and separate those that are more distant. In a classroom, when people sit next to each other when there is plenty of space, we may guess that they know each other.
Sometimes the shared attributes will be obvious, but...
Similarity Principle
Sometimes the properties we notice vary with the person. Some people might group these sea creatures by color, while others would separate the crab from the fish.
Closure Principle
Continuity Principle
Common Fate Principle

Before we can truly examine the ways we sort through the electronic information surrounding us, we need to know a bit about how our brains process that information. Let's try a puzzle. On a piece of paper, draw nine dots arranged as you see them below. Your task is to connect all nine dots using four straight lines WITHOUT LIFTING YOUR PEN FROM THE PAPER.

Spend a few minutes trying this and then hit return to see the solution.
This puzzle has been around since the early 20th century, but I have given it in dozens of classes and only a few students are able to solve it. Yet, once you see the solution, it seems very obvious. Why do so many people find it challenging?

The answer is rooted in the way our brains create our understanding of the world. Most of us perceive a boundary that passes through the edge of the grid, even though there is nothing there.

We are going to go over the three stages of perception. But first, let's watch a short video of neuroscientist Dan Simons discussing the way our brains distort the things we see.
Thousands of stimuli bombard us every moment. If we attended to all of them, we would be overwhelmed. During the first stage of perception, which is called
, we filter out the majority of these stimuli.

Our senses are remarkable tools for helping us navigate the world, but in order to do this, they actually filter out far more information than they let through. Our brains rely on several kinds of perceptual filters.
Physiological Filters
Each of our primary senses has limitations. And each of them competes with information from the others. Some examples of our many physiological limits include:
. This is the dominant sense for many of us. Approximately 1/4 of our brain is dedicated to processing visual stimuli. Because our eyes face forward, most of us are able to see depth. But as Simmons noted, the area we see clearly is very small. And we cannot see many types of light, like ultraviolet or infrared at all.
. Humans with excellent hearing can can distinguish sounds between 20 and 20,000 Hz. But few of us can actually do that. Hearing is a fragile sense and it diminishes quickly. Many animals like whales and elephants communicate with sounds we cannot hear at all.
Contextual Filters
In addition to the physiological filters that limit the things we notice, surrounding stimuli influence our perception as well. You are more likely to appreciate the aroma of a cup of coffee in your kitchen than in a garbage dump.

Human color vision is more acute in brighter light, but the quality of the light changes the perception of color as well. Despite the energy savings, many people resist converting to fluorescent lights near their mirrors because the light does not tend to be flattering.

Stronger stimuli draw our attention away from weaker ones. It is much harder to hear your companion's voice in a noisy club than in a secluded grove.

Our physical and emotional states are also important contextual influences on the perception process. When we are tired or depressed, we are likely to miss cues that might otherwise be obvious to us. Hungry people are more likely to notice stimuli associated with food. If we are afraid, cues associated with the source of our fear draw our attention away from other stimuli.

Some of our filtering also comes from personal experience. Sometimes the impact of experience on our filtering process is very short lived. If you enter a dark room after walking in the bright sunshine, you probably won't be able to see much at first, but most people adjust after a few minutes and their vision improves. On the other hand, some experiences change our filtering process for years. People who have experienced the fiendishly itchy welts associated with an urushiol reaction often develop an uncanny ability to spot poison oak or sumac, even when they have little interest in other plants.

Our senses also can be trained to discriminate between stimuli more effectively. Most drivers develop the ability to pick out a relatively small red light, even when they are surrounded by a cacophony of urban stimuli. Experienced chefs are more likely to recognize the spices in a complex dish, and musicians are more able to identify the key of a song.

Let's watch another video to see how good you are at catching visual changes.

Problems With the Organization Stage:
The Wrong Connections
Unfortunately, the use of schemas may lead to poor decisions if we forget that this is a subjective process and susceptible to bias and errors. The organization process goes awry when we connect things that are not related or when we fail to recognize connections that ARE related. Either type of error may lead to distortions in our understanding of the world. Sugary drinks have contributed to the downfall of many a diet, when the dieter filed them into the category of beverages that replenish fluids without also applying the category of fattening junk food.

Another common misapplication of the organizational process is called
, which occurs when our categories are rigid, or we refer to them in cases where they don't apply. Some stereotypes are negative, while others are positive. The key is that that we fail to recognize individual differences. So, for example, people fear sharks, but many species are completely harmless. Many species of jellies are beautiful marine creatures, but some of them pack a dangerous sting!

As Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie observes in this TED Talk, we are particularly vulnerable to inaccurate stereotypes when we are exposed to limited information.
During the interpretation stage of perception, we attach meaning to the stimuli we have selected and organized. We may develop conclusions about why stimuli are grouped together or are behaving in a certain way. This is also the time when we determine whether we like or dislike a stimulus, and we plan how we will respond to it. Two people might link the smell of burning wood to campfires, but one might have positive associations that spark a desire to go camping, while another might remember an evening spent coughing with burning eyes and decide to go to a restaurant for dinner instead.

Of course, our interpretations are deeply influenced by the way we organize stimuli. So, for example, a person who includes fish in her category for food will have a very different interpretation when she sees a dish prepared with grilled fish than someone whose primary category for fish is precious pet.

Humans are prone to several types of interpretation error.
Once stimuli get through our filters, so that we are aware of them, we arrange the information our brains have recognized. We group them in categories that make sense to us. Again, much of this process is unconscious. We do this using mental structures that some people call
and other people call
Many people use the terms
interchangeably, but though prejudice is rooted in stereotypes, it adds an emotional, evaluative element. So if we consider all sharks to be dangerous predators, we have an inaccurate stereotype. If we hate sharks, we have a prejudice. Allport defines prejudice as "an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group as a whole, or toward an individual because he (sic) is a member of that group." (1954, p. 9) Allport notes that prejudices differ from misconceptions in that they are resistant to change. We tend to get emotional and defensive when we are confronted with evidence that contradicts our prejudices.

This common interpretation distortion occurs when we assume that another person is like us, and we evaluate his or her actions accordingly. For example, someone who smiles primarily when they are happy is likely to assume that smiling people are also happy, but smiles could be an indication of nervousness or a desire to avoid trouble. A confirmed early riser who encounters someone asleep at 11 in the morning may believe the sleeper is lazy, when they may have a biological clock that makes night work more effective.

This common interpretation error occurs when we assume that when stimuli or objects occur together, one causes the other. Of course, in many cases, this may be true. But many times, associations may appear to be causal when they are not. Major sporting events are usually packed with fans wearing unique clothing and memorabilia, because they have noticed an association between times they wear the items and their team's wins. Causality errors made by fans linking a special shirt to a sports victory are relatively harmless. They may even add to a fan's engagement with the games. But these errors in interpretation are sometimes serious. We need to train ourselves to distinguish true causal relationships from other forms of correlation. Silver (2012) compares true causal relationships to
, which we need to learn to separate from other kinds of correlations, which he calls
. He observes that until 1997, the conference of the winning Super Bowl team was closely correlated with the direction of the U.S. stock market the following year. But if investors had mistaken this random correlation for causality, they could have lost fortunes in the decade that followed. The correlation was clearly coincidental.
Implied Causality
This is a remarkable time to be alive. We learn fascinating things about the world and ourselves every day. The media present a wealth of brilliant science and technology information, thought provoking political and social news, powerful dramas, hilarious comedies, and no end of cat videos. We can watch actual events on Mars and chat and collaborate with people on the other side of the planet. The potential seems endless.

But sometimes this vast ocean of information can overwhelm us. We may be unable to distinguish crucial facts from the never ending barrage of trivial distractions. We are subjected to a barrage of "alternative facts" and may have a hard time figuring out which sources are accurate and which should be considered "fake news." Furthermore, the allure of electronic communication may steal our focus from the people and events in our immediate surroundings. J.P. Rangaswami describes this dilemma in the TED talk that follows in the next frame.

Simons calls our inability to notice these kinds of alterations
change blindness
. When this happens in created programs like television or movies, we call them
continuity errors
They happen because it is impossible for ANYONE to attend to all the different stimuli that surround us. While they are mortifying (and potentially job threatening) for the producers of the program, as viewers, we miss most continuity errors without worrying much about it.

Sometimes, however, vulnerabilities in our perception may open us up to important information or even intentional misdirection. Apollo Robbins is a highly skilled pickpocket who demonstrates this potential problem in a TED Talk.
Perception, Play,
and Creativity
We have spent a lot of time talking about the problems that often arise from unavoidable errors in our perception of the world. But it is important to note that perceptual distortions can trigger creativity as well.

I admit I am not a huge fan of
's music, but their innovative videos illustrate the creative potential that comes with perceptual shifts. As we shall see in a couple of weeks, they also are social media distribution pioneers.

In this
TED talk,
's Damian Kulash explains the way perceptual play influences the band's creative work. The video begins with one of their songs. I encourage you to pay attention to the visuals that illustrate the song, rather than the music itself.

Full transcript