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When It’s Wintertime in Winnipeg

January 8, 2014

To wait out the rigors of the recent protracted deep freeze, with the temperature plummeting to -40 degrees Celsius and windchill making it feel another 10 degrees or more colder (not atypical of a Manitoba winter), I hunkered down in the warmth of my sister’s hospitality.   She sees no need to own either a television or a computer, so my “unplugged” sanctuary afforded ample opportunity to indulge my passion for reading books—paper and ink rather than the e-books I have become accustomed to over the past few years.  A quick yet bone-chilling dash to the public library garnered some intriguing titles, and warmed by pots of tea, I contently nestled down between their pages. 


Over the drawn-out “downtime”, my laptop, even without Internet a wealth of accumulated information and treasure trove of entertainment, allowed me to indulge in a bit of binge-watching.   I settled upon the final few episodes of the third season of Forbrydelsen, (which means “the crime”), the superb Danish BBC police/political drama that dedicates each season to the investigation of a single crime, each episode depicting a single day of its progress.  The plot line has more twists and turns than Germany’s world-renowned Nurburgring Nordschleiffe motorsport circuit, and trying to keep up with the often-fleeting subtitles conjured up my experience of watching Formula Atlantic trackside.  I was very disappointed that there will be no fourth season, surprising since the show enjoyed critical acclaim, very high ratings and had developed a cult following. The American knockoff, dubbed The Killing, may go into a fourth season (it’s been on again, off again), but that series is a pale imitation of the original.  


Bidding a reluctant goodbye to Detective Inspector Sarah Lund, whose missionary zeal for justice had left her life in tatters and finally consumed her, I turned to the fascinating 3-part National Geographic series I had recently recorded, entitled Test Your Brain.  This 2011 documentary explores some very surprising discoveries about, as the episode titles suggest, our ability to pay attention, our perceptions and our memory.


Do you think your senses tell you the truth, that what you see, hear and feel matches reality?  If you answered, “Yes,” guess again.  This series suggests quite the opposite is true, maintaining we see not what is, but rather what is useful to us, that seldom corresponding to reality.


The brain uses elements of the messages it receives from the eyes—shadow, colour and perspective—to create the 3D images and movement that help us interpret the world.  Our ears transform pressure variations into what we perceive as sound, informing us of our surroundings.  (I was amazed that people can actually learn echolocation.)  However when one received message conflicts with another, the brain can misread reality.  Yet despite the fact that we can be easily fooled, our interpretation of reality is close enough to serve us well.


The human brain is hardwired to instantly recognize faces (even when they are upside down) from the sketchiest of details.  The presenters demonstrated how the brain “corrects” facial images to make them conform to what we expect.  Therefore an upside-down photo of a well-known celebrity with eyes and mouth inverted appeared natural until righted.  Our brains are also adept at interpreting human movement from the vaguest of impressions.  In a darkened room it was not difficult to quickly identify a range of activities engaged in by actors, the only things visible being small lights fitted at major joints that allowed one to track their motion.


The documentary showed that focusing on things is an innate strength, so well adapted that when we are focused on something, we often miss very obvious things that our brains decide are irrelevant to what we are doing.  (How well I know this!)   Since our short-term memory can only retain 5 to 7 items at a time, the brain must conserve storage space, holding on to only what is important at the moment.  Any “excess” is totally lost within 20 seconds.


For all you “multitaskers,” this documentary very emphatically debunked your myth, demonstrating that it is not possible to effectively focus on more than one thing at a time.  Study participants were asked to answer quite simple questions over a cellphone while driving behind a truck that would at times drop beach balls. In attempting to focus on both tasks, the participants’ driving suffered significantly, and their ability to respond to questions did as well, their answers either incorrect or faltering.  When abruptly having to respond to bouncing balls, the subjects frequently forgot the questions entirely.   


The documentary also showed that we can vicariously experience pain when seeing someone else injured.  Most of us will experience phantom pain when we believe we have been injured, even though we have suffered no harm at all.


Throughout the documentary, a number of simple “games” are used to illustrate just how inaccurate our perception can be.  These games are akin to a magic show; in fact one of the principal demonstrators is a magician.  The amazing thing was that even when he carefully demonstrated how his “tricks” worked, it was still almost impossible to follow when he repeated those same tricks.  He was able to keep people’s focus away from what he was doing right in front of their eyes.


To test the accuracy of memory, twenty people were placed in a small crowd watching a three-card monte game.  A crime was staged a few feet away, a man robbed of his camera by three people.   When the witnesses were asked to report what they had seen to a detective, none were sure of even major details, and over a few days what memories they did have faded and became even more distorted.   All were confused about what had happened, and they could not even agree on how many perpetrators were involved, much less describe any of them.  The majority picked the wrong man out of a police line-up, selecting a man who seemed familiar because he had been standing among them in the crowd.  When a couple of shills were introduced into the group to inject fabricated details into the mix, many of those who had actually witnessed the “crime” incorporated the new information into their version of events.  When the group was shown a video of the robbery, all were flabbergasted at how far-removed their memories were from reality.  It became obvious that even though eyewitness statements are routinely used in court cases, memory is too often untrustworthy.


Obviously this documentary had a specific focus, dealing only with the interpretation of hard sensory input.  But I know perception is coloured (no pun intended) by a whole set of other inputs—belief systems, values, attitudes, past experiences, personal desires.  Our brains are constantly trying to make the input received make sense, to fit it into the big picture of the world we have created for ourselves.  As the Talmud sagely says, we do not see things as they are, but as we are.  Or as expressed in a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s memorable 1969 folk-rock ballad, The Boxer, wisdom that seared itself into my consciousness many years ago,


A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.


I think the same too often holds true of our reading of scripture.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Louise permalink
    January 13, 2014 12:19 am

    Are you back in Canada for Christmas or still in Canada from you eye surgery? I look forward to hearing more about the school in Haiti as well as your visits to some of the historical sites.

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