February 27, 2010

Fresh Eyes and Assumptions

Originality is simply a pair of fresh eyes.
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oxford University recently published research indicating that in certain circumstances people don't notice if the room they are in grows to four times its original size.

Researchers used the latest in computer virtual reality technology to create a room where they could manipulate size and distance. They manipulated the room so it would get bigger as people walked through it, but subjects failed to notice the change in size. Consequently, they made gross errors when asked to estimate the size of objects in that room.

The lead researcher, Dr Andrew Glennerster, said "This was very surprising. Normally, viewing a scene with two eyes, or walking around it, provides enough information to calculate its 3D structure"
Generally, there are two key cues that tell us about

size and positioning in our 3D surroundings: binocular disparity and motion parallax. Binocular disparity uses the distance between our two eyes to tell us how far away things are: each eye gives a slightly different 'shot' of an object, and the bigger the difference, the closer the object is. Motion parallax is the way closer objects move faster across our field of vision than far-off objects when we are moving: for example, roadside trees whisk by when we drive compared to distant hills. However, despite there being all the normal visual cues as the virtual room changed, subjects in the experiment seemed to override the facts in favor of their assumption that rooms stay the same.

Commenting on the findings that people ignore the evidence of their own eyes, Glennerster cites Bayes, an eighteenth-century mathematician. "Bayes said that what we believe to be the state of the world is the product of two things: your prior assumptions and your sensory information. If your sensory information is very specific, you'll go with that. But if it's poor, or confusing, you'll go with your prior assumption. That's what seems to be happening here." The participants' assumption that rooms stay the same size is so strong that it overrides all the usual cues from binocular disparity and motion parallax.

Years ago I went to get a soft drink from a vending machine. I used this machine regularly, perhaps once per week. I put two quarters in the machine (this dates me, I know) but nothing happened. I pressed the button multiple times. I banged the machine on the side a few times. I pressed the button requesting my money back. Still nothing happened. After about ten minutes I noticed something. The price of soft drinks was 60 cents, not 50 cents. They had changed the price and it was right in front of my eyes. But I wasn't paying attention to the reality in front of me. I was operating on auto pilot - or, in other words, mindlessly.

Our challenge is to encounter the world with fresh eyes. Nothing stays the same. Spring teaches us how life changes, sprouts, blossoms, and shrivels up from one moment to the next. Look at a spot at the same time each day. It's different from the day before. So is your daughter. Or your wife. Life is not a photo, it's a never-ending movie. Boredom is simply a lack of attention and curiosity - a preference for ideas over real life.

- Gregg Krech
ToDo Institute

Posted on February 27, 2010 1:14 PM | TrackBack
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