Emily Articulated: Illusion

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

As a society, we love optical illusions. All I have to do is mention “the dress” and memories flash back to global internet feuds and televised celebrity takes on whether the grainy image posted to social media by a woman somewhere in England captured a blue-and-black or white-and-gold-striped dress (it was blue-and-black, obviously).

Emily Erickson.

Entire rows in children’s bookstores are dedicated to similar illusions, with instructions to stare at a static dot until the page around it comes to life with swirling lines and moving color splotches — teaching us at a young age to take delight in the ways our eyes and brain collaborate in constructing the world around us.

But our eyes are not the only sensory organ susceptible to illusion. Recently, I listened to a Vox Unexplainable podcast episode called “Making Sense: How Sound Becomes Hearing,” exploring the science of sound and all that we still don’t know about it.

In this episode, psychologist Diana Deutch discussed her 1970s discovery of an audio illusion. It began with Diana playing a sequence of two alternating notes in one ear (high to low) and then the same sequence of notes reversed in the other ear (low to high). Despite knowing there were two unique sequences of high and low notes being played on either side of her head, she only heard high notes in one ear and low notes in the other. Her experience of hearing wasn’t consistent with the sound she knew was being played.

Upon expanding the auditory illusion into a full scale scientific study, she concluded that the brain edits sensory input, only presenting us with some of the information it’s receiving. 

In her experience with the first illusion, her brain was reorganizing the high and low notes to either side of her head because that’s the way sound usually works in the world: one note coming from one direction, and a different note coming from another direction. 

Rather than directly computing sound to hearing, our brains run any input through its filter of understanding, presenting us with its best guess as to how something should sound — a result that inevitably varies on a person-to-person basis.

Other popular auditory illusions that traveled nearly as far and wide as their optical cousin, “the dress,” are the “Laurel” versus “Yanny” illusion and Grover from Sesame Street’s, “That sounds like an excellent idea“ versus “That’s a effing excellent idea.“

These illusions, wherein we’re literally seeing, hearing and experiencing the world differently from one another, are sensory representations of a psychological concept that’s been on my mind a lot lately: confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is our predisposition to process new things by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with our existing beliefs. We naturally filter our experiences, accepting information that supports what we think we know, and ignore or reject any conflicting evidence — a phenomenon only exacerbated by media platform algorithms and targeted content serving. We take the information we like, from the sources we already trust, and write the rest off as false or misleading.

If you’ve attempted a conversation with anyone who holds a different belief system than you lately, it’s obvious we’re not only drawing different conclusions from the same sets of information; but, also, that we’re experiencing completely conflicting realities. And that poses the question, “If we’re all living in different versions of the same world, is seeing eye-to-eye even possible?” 

The good news is, the same studies that identify our collective proclivity toward confirmation bias also demonstrate that we’re capable of broader, more objective, thinking, if given strategies to overcome our natural filters.

From an information-consumption standpoint, we can seek out multiple and neutral sources from credible authors on any given topic, diving deeper than headlines and cover images to discern whether or not the information being presented is accurate and worth considering further.

Regarding our predisposition to faulty interpretation, we can employ a “consider the opposite” strategy when presented with data we think supports our point of view. In this, we can ask ourselves, “Would I have drawn the same conclusion if the information supported results on the other side of this issue?” If answered honestly, we can check ourselves for a biased blindspot.

And finally, we can reach out to people we respect and know to think differently than us, and practice having considerate conversations about our experiences in the world. Having space to explore impartiality and engage in the openness and vulnerability required of changing our minds, can help us overcome our biases and reclaim the illusive middle ground that so often feels like an illusion.

Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.

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