Jan 25, 2013

Did you see that?!...Pro'lly not

 “Adrift in an Arkansas swamp in February of 2004, a lone kayaker encountered what he believed could only be a figment of his imagination, an enormous black and white bird that had been declared extinct in North America for over fifty years...”  

                                             image from: www.smithsonianmag.com

Thus begins the documentary Ghost Bird, described in the NYT as, “a multilayered story that will fascinate practically everybody…” It's true. Audiences are rapt, including documentary devourers, bird hobnobbers, citizen scientists, scientists, and those generally interested in the human condition. It's a haunting film. The mystery of the giant, Ivory Billed Woodpecker has an uncanny hold on the locals whose livelihoods rely on its legend, and the people who spend their days believing in and searching for it. Even science unfurls a human, vulnerable self, wherein believing in something that may never appear is not out of the question. 

If you scroll down the Cornell University Ornithology Lab's Q & A about their scientists’ involvement, they state that there was not enough conclusive evidence to continue the expensive search. But they, too, had been tramping about in the dim, crackling wood, heard the stories, saw the blurred, suggestive photos - and they support the hypothesis that the bird might still be out there...  

Moviegoers will wonder: Are the photos real? Does this mythical bird live? ...Or do some believers want to see it badly enough that suddenly, before their eager eyes, it materializes? Not only can humans deftly omit or augment perception until a thing seems as we wish it to be; if prompted, we can see what may not be there at all. There are several factors involved here. The psychological piece, which is quite complex, is known in overly-simple terms as self-deception, rationalization, and the holding of contradictory beliefs, and we are often guilty of all of them. Even at the purely physical level, the phenomenon is also straightforwardly a function of optics: visually, when our blind spot leaves information out, our eye happily steps in to fill in the blanks. 

Can we overcome our more myopic traits and see what is really there? The history of science contains innumerable attempts to perfect the art of perception, discern thought from reality, parse the visible from the invisible, and find what is true. The pursuit leaves us bereft of One Final Answer, still. But for now we are not beyond hope, as we are highly trainable. Our brains can be altered. One man who clearly knows how to do this is a detective and, fittingly, he is a figment of our imaginations.

The BBC's quirky, new Sherlock Holmes upholds the tradition of having the brilliant resident of 221 B Baker St. be annoyingly adept at illuminating all of the things we ordinary folks don't notice. 

Maria Konnikova's new book Mastermind is the most recent attempt to expose the Holmesian bag of cognitive tricks. Konnikova lays out recent discoveries in psychology to show us that there are ways we, too, could train ourselves to observe, rather than just see. Hers and previous books on the topic posit that very normal seeming activities - meditation, repetition, practice - have the potential to change how we take in information and store it in our brains. 

For those of you who are now chomping at the bit to get started altering your brains, we've found you a quick tutorial.

Here at OSlab, we're all for leaving a bit of mystery in the everyday. If we all train ourselves to see the same things, does it homogenize the observable world and sell it short?  Is it better to see what we want to see, each add our bit of individual flair?  This has its complications, too, we concede. Well, thanks to quantum physics, this may all be moot: perhaps there are already many versions of the world - wildly nature-red-tooth-and-clawing, sci fi or straight sci, beyond the imaginable -  despite us, simultaneously spinning.

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