On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality
September 6, 2006
Reality is beyond our reach
It is time to return to the roots of this series after a number of digressions. I’ll recap earlier points, such as what we “see” is not necessarily the Truth. There are many distortions between the object and the image formed in our minds. Placing a camera, film, scanner and/or a digital chip between the object and your brain results in even more issues.
This series deals with “things we see”. It is not hard to generalize many of the arguments to a broader part of our lives. Are our emotions independent of our perceptions of “reality”? Is touch and feel less off the mark than what we “see”? What about our hearing – is it accurate? Does a burger really taste the way we think is tastes? For all I know, the answer to each question is “No”.
Not only that, our perceptions are unique to each of us. No one sees things the way the next person does. That truly has wide reaching consequences. Answers below.
Nothing is what it seems
The On Reality essays started early August 2006 by stating that we humans see nothing but light as it is emitted or reflected by the various objects around us. We don’t actually see the objects themselves. Since light is a highly variable and unreliable element, an object constantly looks different to us. Nevertheless, our brain makes us believe we know what objects look like. The brain, together with our eyes, does that by introducing additional distortions to “compensate” for the original fallacies. How can we call any of this “knowing reality”?
Part 1 of On Reality concluded that we do not know what reality is, nor do most of us care. But for me as a photographer – and a documentarian as well – this is an important subject. So it is, or should be, to anyone judging what reality is – such as newspaper editors, historians, investigators, CIA spooks and anyone actually interested in the “Truth”.
A view aside – “Reality” as seen by philosophers
Discussions of Reality are hardly a new subject. Philosophers have made mighty deep and complex statements on the subject for thousands of years. Practically every philosopher of fame has his own view. There are additional “schools of thought” for those that don’t quite have a unique idea.
I did study some of these views as a background to this series. Many of the ideas are way above my head. I’m not a philosopher, I’m an artist photographer. I did reach some conclusions: to many of these geniuses, reality is a very suspect phenomena. Many agree we have no idea what it is, except perhaps on a limited level. So far so good. I agree.
Now, these essays of mine are no attempt to compete with these guys. All I do is try to relate simple physics and well known, down to Earth facts to the subject of photography and our minds. End of story.
The previous posts
On Reality – Part 1 – discussed light being a highly suspect basis for establishing “reality”. In Part 2, I digressed onto a somewhat different path – photojournalism and faked/staged photos, largely because of the Reuters Beirut scandal. This digression lasted through Part 3 and 3a. In Part 4, the passing of Joe Rosenthal set me off on journey through photography of war. This became a personal statement on the “reality” of war itself, in particular its horrible effect on those unfortunates directly involved.
This post returns to our perceptions of Reality, hooking up to the discussion of light alone. I’ll cover three additional sources of distortions: the camera, our eyes and our brains. The simple conclusion is that each of these three elements add more complexity to our perceptions. It becomes even more impossible to objectively know “Reality”.
We make up our personal views of reality and argue endlessly with those having a different perception of the same thing. Sometimes such differences lead to war, perhaps only in your house but maybe on a far grander scale. Sometimes a journalist gets fired after “improving” reality. Sometimes friends cease being friends. Occasionally strangers become friends. Some get married while others divorce. And so on.
Images in this post
It is not easy to illustrate what goes on in our brains. Especially since that is a highly personal subject. I ended up with five pairs of two images illustrating some aspect of reality as seen in various ways.
- Two commonly used “illusions”. They show how easy it is to fool our smart brains.
- Two images of George W. discussing reality. The guy perhaps has too much power given his really strange view of reality.
- Two images of recent presidents in a context that defies any illusion of reality. At least it does in my senses.
- Two faked images very popular in the late 1800’s. Photographers seriously attempted to capture a reality beyond our senses.
- Two cartoons illustrating the fallacy of expectations. Reality is not always what we expect it to be.
Where is the Truth?
Cameras record the “Truth?” – Sorry
A camera essentially is a very simple mechanical object. It consists of a lens, a shutter system and a back end device such as a digital chip or a film. This device catches the light remaining after passing through the lens and the shutter system. That’s about it. Of course there are additional elements supporting the three basic ones – light meters, flashes, digital software and much else. Let’s stick with the basics.
A lens is just some pieces of glass or, occasionally, plastic in a tube. It gathers light to be recorded by the back end of the camera. We’ve discovered, over the last 150 years or so, that it is not possible to build an accurate lens. Today’s lenses are incredibly complex. This complexity is caused by attempting to correct the distortions caused by using the lens in the first place. No matter how hard the engineers try, no lens passes on the light hitting it accurately. Each brand, focal length, focusing system and even individual lenses have different and, to some extent, measurable characteristics. A lens passes on only a part of the light it receives, depending on engineering and the amount and quality of the glass involved. As a result of all these factors, the lens records a distorted version of the light it receives, no matter how much money you spend. Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here.
Then we have the shutter system. Better yet, we might include the aperture device and call it the light control system. While we are at it, let’s add the light meter present in most cameras. There are endless engineering variations of these systems. All of them share one characteristic. They are inaccurate. Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here.
Finally, the poor back end receives this distorted junk. As you might guess by now, any variation of back ends introduce their own set of inaccuracies. If you are a Photoshop affectionate, you may have played – or even used – some of the fancy plug ins that attempt to change the characteristics of various back ends. There are plug ins that “compensate” for or “emulate” all kinds of film brands. You can make your digital photo look like it was shot with HP 400 black and white film. Or Velvia color film. Or anything else you may fancy. There are other plug ins that make your film images look like they were digitally shot. Or take your digital shots and correct for white balance, exposure, grain and much else.
Scanning software often contains similar controls.
Now, if the back end of the camera was accurate, then none of the above would be needed – right? Right. Here are some facts. In a film camera, you load a particular film. That film possess unique features starting with brand, batch, age all the way down to the individual roll and how it was stored from manufacturing and on.
In a digital camera, there is a chip with various unique characteristics ranging from resolution and sensitivity to size. The chip is associated with onboard software doing who knows what to the image. RAW images may – or not – bypass the onboard software to produce an “accurate” image. Of course, that image is not accurate at all. Some digital cameras allow you to modify the onboard software for white balance, shooting situation (”Hawaiian sunsets”, “Cathedrals” etc.) and much else. Removing “red eyes” has become quite an industry because most camera manufacturers knowingly put the flash in the wrong place.
In short – as to the back end of the camera – Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here.
All we can expect of a camera is that it gives us images we like. Or images we can “improve” using various tools. We must control the images as we shoot. We must deal with the distorted images produced by the camera. These are subjects for later posts. Please just accept the unavoidable fact that the camera gives you a highly distorted view of the light from the subject you’re shooting. No truth. No accuracy. Plenty of distortions. No matter how much you spend. Sorry.
A last comment about cameras. They give us an image frozen in time. You press the shutter button. The shutter fires for a given period of time. The back end records the light received in the period of time. The image is done and reflects only that period of time. That leads us to two very different devices – our eyes that record images in an analog manner and our brain that processes those analog images in real time. This is way more complex and sophisticated than that poor camera.
Eyes tell the “Truth?” – Sorry.
Superficially, our eyes share some characteristics with a camera. They have lenses, irises and corneas with aperture and focusing controls. They understand and adjust for different light levels. There is a retina back end consisting of seven layers of light sensitive receptors that pass information to our brains. The eyes’ focusing, aperture and light controls are infinitely more sensitive and fast than those of any camera, however costly or “digital”.
So do our eyes accurately record the Truth and pass it on to the brain? No. Your eyes have limitations as well. Some of us are near sighted, others far sighted and some color blind. Others are simply blind. Not to forget crossed and/or wandering eyes. To older people, focus muscles get worn out. The eyes may contract illnesses. The lenses and corneas are easily damaged. Many lenses are shaped in an inaccurate way, resulting in distortions. The receptors may get temporarily blinded by sudden changes in light levels.
There are big businesses involved in fixing your eyes. Eye glasses, sun glasses and contact lenses eat up billions of our dollars while introducing even more distortions. Many of these devices change the focus and color of the light reaching your eyes. Some even change to color of the eyes themselves. Surgery chains happily operate on your eyes at a remarkably low price, changing your point of view completely.
The eyes and the rest of the visual system do not operate on light or colors the way a camera does. The system transforms the light entering the eyes to initially straight lines that eventually combine into curved lines and contours. Colors and light levels are judged by comparing the curves. Colors are no longer represented by K values. Light is no longer measured by absolute levels, as is done in the photo cell of a light meter. This process introduces a fair degree of inaccuracy. It is the basis of the many illusions with which some (such as psychiatrists) like to work or play. I added two if these illusions to this page.
Add the analog feature of our eyes and visual system. There is no such thing as one view of our surroundings. The eyes constantly receive new information. They react to the information in an eternal cycle of adjustments deemed necessary. Consider the fact that most of us have two eyes. Each eye receives a two dimensional view. The visual system combines the two dimensional views into one three dimensional view. Take that, you one-eyed, two dimensional cameras.
Think about it. Here are your relatively tiny eyes that have incomparable power and flexibility relative to any camera at any price and size. But accurate? Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry.
Ah – the brain fixes it all – Sorry.
The brain does fix it all, in a manner of speech. It is in complete charge of our perceptions. It even adds a whole emotional dimension to the the information from the eyes. Of course, the brain controls the eyes themselves, not to mention all of you. A regular control freak, your brain.
The trouble is we don’t quite understand what our brain does with that relatively straight forward stream of distorted light entering the eyes. We can’t control the process. We do know that what we see is an interpretation created by the brain. What are the rules for this interpretation? Here you enter a real complex issue studied by many very clever people with lots of theories, some of which are contradictory.
One theory states that the brain creates an interpolated view that is based on incomplete information from the eyes. This, again, explains the visual illusions mentioned earlier. Manipulate the incomplete information reaching the brain and it makes predictably bad decisions. There are various theories how this interpretation works, such as the one claiming the brain uses the complex math of Bayesian science.
The brain also makes basic assumptions such as light is usually coming from above. It relies on prior experience to produce a predicable, safe interpretation. It is almost like the old (very outdated) saying in IT circles: You will never go wrong by buying IBM. The brain produces an image that it thinks you will like. It even goes as far as making sure that image won’t hurt you too much.
Then there is the “Gestalt” theory. It states that the brain receives a bunch of sub components of the visual image. The brain then combines these sub components into the whole according to a set of rules. This theory claims the brain uses six distinct rules to achieve its goal. Perhaps, perhaps not.
Other theories claim the rules depend on personality, race, gender, occupation, education, age, attitudes, values and so on. I suppose that makes intuitive sense.
A completely different theory discards most of the above. The brain receives sufficient information and does not make interpretations as stated above.
There you are. Full circle and total confusion. Does any of this sound like the visual system is capable of presenting Reality? Is it even designed to show Reality? It doesn’t seem so to me. Apart from pointing out to me that I have no idea what goes on, it appears clear that presenting reality is not even a major concern. And it’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
It seems to me we, again, have to state: Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry.
So what? Distortions can be dangerous
Let’s play with a few examples and quotes dealing with the meaning of this.
First, a simple one. Doesn’t food look much more appetizing if you are hungry? The brain uses some rule to tell us we better get ourselves some food to satisfy our needs. This sure can kill you financially if you are in a supermarket.
Second, look up at two tall buildings side by side. Take a picture of the same thing. Compare the picture with what you saw using your eyes. Do the two representations of the same objects look different? Of course they do. You figure it out.
Next, let’s look at all the theories of witness reliability in criminal and other investigations. Most say that reliability is quite low. But why? There are many explanations, opinions and studies published, discussed, disputed and trashed. There is a whole industry of hired “experts” apparently able to judge witness reliability. Perhaps who is paying the expert’s fee influences the conclusions. Perhaps not. Eitherway, this is an issue worth looking at to understand how our brain treats “reality”.
For instance, there are the questions surrounding the crash of TWA Flight 800 outside Long Island. Law officials found no less than 348 eye witnesses to the crash. A little over half saw the plane being on fire before hitting water. The rest – almost half – saw no fire. There was and is the conspiracy rumor of a missile attack on the plane. Investigators compared the witness accounts to the black box and recorders information. There are many opinions why different types of evidence seemed so contradictory. Some say the discrepancies have perfectly normal explanations – the accounts from witnesses were largely correct and the flight data was too incomplete. Others say witnesses were subject to a mind game fueled by the publicity and thus totally unreliable. The truth – who knows. Probably somewhere in between the two theories.
Then we have the debate on a child’s reliability as a witness in possible sexual abuse cases. Here is a quote:
“It has been learned and amply documented that the issue of TRUTH when applied to children’s statements is multidimensional. The focus on how children’s statements might differ from adults’ statements has compelled a scientific return to an understanding of child development in moral, cognitive, emotional and social spheres. Many volumes have recently appeared on the suggestibility of children, the creation of false or distorted memories, motivation, and other aspects of truth-telling, all of which attempt to explain why some children’s reports of sexual abuse are not true, even though the child may appear to be sincere. “
So the reliability of this class of witnesses is low. Interviewing techniques very much influence the child’s eventual testimony and actual memory of the incidence (if any).
Here is another quote:
“Numerous psychological studies have shown that human beings are not very good at identifying people they saw only once for a relatively short period of time. The studies reveal error rates of as high as fifty percent — a frightening statistic given that many convictions may be based largely or solely on such testimony.“
50%? It appears the brain might be wrong as often as it is right. Just like meteorologists. Don’t decide on bringing an umbrella along based on the weather forecast. Don’t bet your life on the recollections of others.
A final set of quotes:
“Visual perception is one of the most complex processing tasks that the brain is called upon to perform. It is not surprising, therefore, that when it goes wrong, the results can be dramatic. It is significant that …. ‘visual perception disorders’, e.g. agnosia, cause only gross errors in perception (sufferers are unable to identify objects as a whole, e.g. a face, a deer..).” Source: here
“Most people assume that what you see is pretty much what your eye sees and reports to your brain. In fact, your brain adds very substantially to the report it gets from your eye, so that a lot of what you see is actually “made up” by the brain (see Seeing more than your eye does). Perhaps even more interestingly, the eye actually throws away much of the information it gets, leaving it to the rest of the brain to fill in additional information in its own ways. A characteristic pattern ….. provides an excellent example of how the brain is organized to actively “make sense” of the information it gets, rather than to simply absorb and respond to it. In so doing, it provides some valuable insights into the sources of our sense of “reality”. Source: here
I can’t say the jury is out on this one. Clearly, there are so many distortions that any view or opinion of “reality” must be suspect. After thousands of years, we still do not really know much about reality. Reality is largely a personal perception with limited base in true reality. The consequences of this are very significant. The false reality starts wars, puts innocent people in jail and destroys others.
Distortions are part of life
Light comes from objects emitting a specific type of energy. Such objects include the sun, stars, lamps, fires, chemical and physical reactions, certain animals, insects and other creatures. Even if we only consider the light emitted from one source, the light is not a constant. For instance, the distance between us and the light source is a very significant factor. So is the question whether or not the light source is visible (”on”). Few light sources provide similar light. K values and spectrums are different. Then we have all sorts of distortions impacting the quality of light, such as dust, clouds, wall colors, bending of light and much else depending on the circumstances.
Light makes it possible for our eyes to “see”. Light makes it possible to make photos. Light is very variable and distorted. So seeing should not be believing.
Cameras, eyes, brain
All three of these items add distortions to the already distorted light. Perhaps the brain is the biggest culprit of all. Depending on who you believe, the brain may make up a fair amount of our view of the environment. We do not know how the brain accomplishes that. We do know the brains of different people use different rules. People see things differently. Sometimes that is a good thing. Sometimes it is disastrous.
We cannot honestly say we know reality. All evidence, most of it quite trivial, speaks to the contrary. We simply have to live with that fact. Most people do not care. But they should.
Upcoming posts in this series
The series is not over with this fifth post. I’ll expand on photo staging, faking and plain lying. I’ll cover propaganda photography. I’ll feed you my view on censorship in photography. I’ll try to explain how artistic manipulation differ from “unethical” manipulation. I’ll reveal what really goes on in those darkrooms. I’ll tell tales on what a computer can do to “reality”. Finally, what does this all mean? Are there rational ways to deal with these fallacies, considering much of our culture depends on the mental traps?
As always, thank you for your visit to my blog. I hope it was worth your time.