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If you can’t trust your brain, who can you trust!!??

I used to think I had a pretty good handle on my ability to figure out what was going on around me. I’m a question-asking, seeing-is-believing type of person. In the past year, though, I’ve learned that our brains, while doing an admittedly remarkable job of getting us through the day, have a disconcerting way of dealing with gaps in what we know. It turns out that sometimes our brains just make stuff up, without our knowledge or permission. And other times, our brains will completely ignore things without our being aware. You may have seen reports in the past of how inaccurate eyewitness accounts can be? Well apparently this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider the spinning dancer image found here. This has been making the rounds of the internet the past few days, and I had a lot of fun sending it to my friends and family to see how they did with it. You are supposed to look at the image to see which way the dancer is spinning. Some people will see the dancer spin clockwise, while others will see it spin counterclockwise. Still others will see it switch it back and forth, and may even be able to make it switch at will.

It turns out (as best I’ve been able to track down) that the dancer isn’t really spinning at all. Instead, it is a series of 2-d images strung together. The silhouette doesn’t tell us details like which leg is in front and so on, because it doesn’t show more than the most basic outline of the limbs. Our brain, though, tries to make the image make sense by filling in the details. If our brain fills the details in one way, the dancer seems to rotate clockwise, and it will look like her right leg is raised. If it fills in the details the other way, the dancer spins counterclockwise, and it appears that her left leg is raised. (You can get a sense of how this works by covering up everything except the foot that is on the ground. If you watch just this foot, you can see that it doesn’t really spin, but rather moves from side to side, giving the impression of rotation.) Pretty nifty!

I found another interesting demonstration that our brains are, at times, surprisingly unreliable. Try to count how many times the players with the white shirts pass the ball in this video. After you’ve watched the video, click here for the answer. (No cheating!!! You’ll kick yourself if you peek and then ruin it.)

I think both of these examples are fantastic reminders that people who have different perspectives and different points of focus will see the world differently, for very good reasons: that is how their brains sincerely think things should be. Sometimes it is difficult to understand how someone else could come to conclusions so different from our own. Examples like these help us understand the huge differences in human opiniond a little better. They also help us evaluate more realistically how much we really know about a given situation.

A book I read just a few months ago, Stumbling on Happiness, has more information about how our brains can lead us on a merry chase, and it gives some ideas for how to keep our brains happy, too!

Now that I know better than to assume that someone else sees something the same way I do, the next time my children seem to be missing an obvious point I’m going to have to remember these lessons!

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