Saturday, July 5, 2008

Perception is 90% Memory?

This excerpt from a recent article in the New Yorker is quite interesting. I wonder if it's true. I'm not as impressed as I used to be when someone quotes a scientific study to bolster his argument. I've worked in advertising long enough to know how easy it is to play with phrases like "scientists have found...".

Still, it feels to me like there is something worth considering in the claims made below. Certainly, most (perhaps all) stage magic depends on this "filling in" phenomenon. (Darius once remarked to me that he was getting tired of magic tricks because they all seemed to depend on just one thing: "hiding something.") I realized he was absolutely correct. Every great magic trick depends on the viewer automatically (and unconsciously) "filling in" for something that isn't there. Propaganda, marketing, advertising, public relations, philosophy, art, fiction, animation ... all work on the same principle. It's what happens when I look at the cracks in the floor or the bark on a tree and instantly see a cartoon face (or even an exquisitely drawn picture). In his book "Influence", Robert Cialdini calls this the "Click, Whir" effect.

Here's the excerpt:

...Or consider what neuroscientists call “the binding problem.” Tracking a dog as it runs behind a picket fence, all that your eyes receive is separated vertical images of the dog, with large slices missing. Yet somehow you perceive the mutt to be whole, an intact entity travelling through space. Put two dogs together behind the fence and you don’t think they’ve morphed into one. Your mind now configures the slices as two independent creatures.

The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.

(End of excerpt)

It also occurs to me that this may be one reason why my life feels like it's passing by more quickly as I get older. With each new experience, I'm actually processing less and less new information. In other words, the larger my frame of reference, the more likely I am to depend on past experience to process what's happening right in front of me. The genuinely "new" sensory experiences I had in an hour of "kid time" are progressively crowded aside to share room with my past sensory experiences during an hour of "adult time".

What do you think?