30
Apr
10

Wonders never cease

One view of scientific progress has thought of increasing technical knowledge of the world as that of disenchantment. As we find out more about the world, there is less space for mystery and magic. This is largely consistent with the rise of enlightenment science and its slow attack on superstitions, magical creatures and happenings, and dogmas of all kinds.

Still, I think science is re enchanting in that it always provides new puzzles and mysteries that need solving, or just facts that are wondrous in themselves.

Take these two findings. First, large pupils are attractive. I almost rushed out to an eye doctor so that I could hit the clubs with saucer-like eyes, but then I found out that its different for men and women. Apparently dilated pupils indicate sexual interest and so men prefer women with dilated eyes. Still, women don’t universally prefer bigger pupils. In general, they prefer medium sized pupils, though according to the study I linked to above, some women who prefer “bad boys” like big pupils. For the interested, there’s a whole story about reproductive success and its link to pupil size.

Far more interesting for me are dichotic listening experiments. In these experiments, different tracks are being played in each ear and the subject is asked to “attend” (that is to say, focus) on one of the channels. On the attended channel, there is a story, and the story comes to a point where there is an ambiguity in the narrative. There are two, equally sensible ways of making sense of what’s happening. Then, in the other ear, a disambiguating sentence is being played, i.e. the non-attended channel provides information for how to interpret the ambiguous story in the attended channel. The listener cannot say anything about what was being communicated in the non-attended channel, but they are disposed to disambiguate the story they ARE attending to in line with the sentence being played on the subliminal channel. There are others things that can be done with this technique, and some colloquial connections are the “cocktail party” effect in which people are capable of attending to a conversation in a noisy room, but then will still respond when they hear their name being called.

To me, these results are incredible because they reveal the depth of our everyday experience. At every second, the body is taking in data from so many sources and putting it all together so seamlessly, which then allows us to do unbelievable things in the world. I think this disrupts one entrenched view of perception, especially eyesight, which is kind of static and not-interactive. On these views, light is hitting the retina and we are seeing what is “there.” But it’s not true. The eyes are actually darting around all the time, constructing a whole picture as much by shortcuts and guesswork as by looking at “what’s there.” When we see something, we are interacting and acting on, the world, rather than just being hit by it, and this is evidence in all areas of life, including hearing, touch and the other sense. Our brain is creating the world for us, and in rich detail and flawless real time seamlessness. Wonders never cease.

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