Do Our Eyes Deceive Us?

Beau Lotto is a professor of neuroscience and the author of Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently. His terrific TED talk is Optical Illusions Show How We See.

How do we see? I will be arguing that we see in a way that is circumscribed—limited. We see space, not time. If time is an iceberg, we see only the flat interface where it intersects with the surface of the water. In a sense, we see a single MRI slice. But beyond the shape our eyes describe, there is a tip and a base to the iceberg—height and depth that we are not seeing. The height and depth of time.

If we accept that our vision is flawed, we cannot take the images our brains create literally. We take them seriously, but not literally. The cognitive scientist who really hit this point home for me is Donald Hoffman.

In other words, we have to see in a new way. We have to see not the single MRI slice, but to envisage the composite. We have to try to hold in our minds a time-lapse image of the cosmos, and see the new shape that emerges. Not individual planets and orbits, but a whole “smeared” tapestry that is quite different than what we think we see.

For instance, what if we were to envision the sun and the moon in a new way, a way that is more holographic. The moon is the homunculus and the sun is the halo. If light is the substrate or medium, the moon represents maximum density; the sun represents maximum speed.

In my mind, I picture a speedometer, with the moon as the small dome below, and the sun as the large dome above. Then I picture the needle, like an arrow of time, sweeping from right to left or left to right. As it sweeps left to right, piece by piece, the moon comes into view. As it sweeps right to left, the moon disappears again.

Here’s another way to think about it. The speed of light is a membrane, a fluid membrane. Time sweeps left to right or right to left. But we can also pierce the membrane by moving up and down. However, the membrane will compensate; to pierce it, in a sense, is an illusion. To expand above it (past a critical threshold) will cause contraction below it. To condense below it (past a critical threshold) will cause expansion above it. I believe the latter is what we are seeing in the fourth state of matter experiment.

Back to the iceberg analogy. The intersection of the iceberg with the surface of the water has a precise width. This “width,” I am arguing, is a stand-in for time. In these models, time is a width of light. The past (the tip of the iceberg) is too narrow. The future (the base of the iceberg) is too wide.

My brain is like a computer that is always trying to read the width of light in my environment. It uses its perception of light to determine how much to constrict, or to dilate—my pupils as well as my blood vessels. My brain is helping me to scale my image with my environment—but my brain is part of my environment. This is the metabolic trap. If my brain is too alkaline, it will not allow me to vasoconstrict as much as I’d like. If my brain is too acidic, it will not allow me to vasodilate as much as I’d like. The longer time is—the taller the iceberg, so to speak—the more difficult it becomes for me to hold both pH extremes (very acidic and very alkaline) in one brain. And so we age.

More on this in my next post, Brain pH, Permission to Vasoconstrict and Vasodilate.

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