An obvious follow-up to my last post on colour vision and the consequences of mechanisms like colour opponency and lateral inhibition is to ask why our brains make it possible to manipulate what we see so easily?
Surely we should only see what’s real, without fancy modifications?
The answer is equally obvious: there is no real.
Or, if you prefer, the real would drive us mad. We create a world based on cognitive perception, not on externally verified data. To prove that, answer this simple question:
What does Coke taste of?
Everyone is familiar with its taste but none of you will agree on what it actually tastes of. This is because it exists in our minds as a construct with a singular identity. It is that created identity, reinforced by marketing and social pervasiveness, that maintains its sales. In fact, it contains water, sucrose or HFCS (depending on market), caramel colour, phosphoric acid, and a battery of natural flavours including essential oils and other spices.
We don’t taste those individual components. We taste Coke.
For those of you who remember the Cola Wars, this is why the Pepsi Challenge was initially so effective: it blinded participants to the Coke brand and forced them to only consider taste (at which point, they rather unsurprisingly favoured the sweeter drink: Pepsi). It’s also why New Coke was such a marketing disaster: Coke sales are not predicated on taste, but on the positive consensus taste construct of the Coke brand. Changing the recipe destroyed the construct, and therefore its sales.
Constructs are massively important because they free up our brains from having to constantly reprocess the world from first principles every millisecond. They act as familiar shared reference points. A continously shifting reality would paralyse us: our brains are set up to compensate for external change, and return things to normal.
For instance, take a red sofa: you will see it as red whether it’s midday or nighttime. In fact, the wavelength of light reflected off the material of the sofa changes drastically between those lighting conditions. And yet, it’s still red to you. This is Colour Constancy and is just one of the many visual perceptual biases we apply to the world to keep it making sense even as the raw data changes.
These phenomena are unconscious – we do them automatically, without effort – to the point that if we make the effect explicit, it creates optical illusions (there are a few here, if you want some fun, and some more here). We like to write off optical illusions as weird aberrations of our senses but the truth is that optical illusions represent one of the few times we actually see “correctly” by noticing the mismatch between external data and our perception of it.
The nature of truth/reality and our inability to externally verify it forms the basis of various philosophical models. On a practical level, understanding that the world is infinitely variable to individuals but much more rigid and consistent to large social groups, has significant implications to our personal happiness.
If you disagree with the group construct, and make your dissent obvious, it will be hard to flourish. Society is very good at creating new constructs to marginalise such individuals. Equally, if you have the resources (emotional/personal or material) to protect yourself from the group, being aware of the mutable nature of reality can be empowering.
Opportunities present themselves to those able to spot the wider, societal cognitive dissonance between how people perceive and interpret the world, and how it actually operates.