7 Tales of Perplexing Perception

Myths and the mind's "magical" properties.

Posted Oct 31, 2019

By Nicklas Balboa and Richard D. Glaser, PhD

While Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ) is traditionally a methodology, its roots lie in mythology. The late Judith E. Glaser, anthropologist and founder of C-IQ (and long-time author of this blog), first introduced me to the topic of mythology through oral tradition. Her tales of Greek and Roman Philosophy would paint a picture of the themes of life. The most common themes found in mythology (love, heroism, fate, faith, etc.) serve as benchmarks for our own actions, providing a blueprint for us to follow. However, modern myths tend to follow a different blueprint, often making claims to knowledge of a “truth” beyond all others.

Up until the last century, the myth “You cannot teach an old dog new tricks” was applied to human development. However, in the 1960s, neuroscientist Joseph Altman discovered and demonstrated neurogenesis (or the growth of new brain cells) in the hippocampus of mature cats, rats, and guinea pigs; suggesting that adult brains can generate new cells and new synaptic connections (i.e. learning).

Although initially rejected, this research was revived in the late 90s by CreatingWE Scientific Board Advisor Bruce McEwen and colleague Elizabeth Gould at Rockefeller University in New York. The team recreated the cellular phenomena Altman discovered in the hippocampus of a shrew, which suggested that it may be a common trait among most mammals.1 Since then researchers from  the Division of Molecular Imaging and Neuropathology at Columbia University have confirmed the sustained effect in adult humans as well.2

A myth like “You cannot teach an old dog new tricks" may seem intuitive, but it underestimates the complexities of experience. As research has shown, the adult brain is still capable of generating new cells throughout life. Here are a few common myths of the mind.

Myths: 

#1. The Sisyphus Trap: 

As the story goes, King Sisyphus ruled over the city of Corinth with an iron fist. His actions defied the gods and he ultimately deceived Zeus, earning him an eternal punishment: Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, but just before he would reach the top, Zeus’ enchanted boulder would find its way back to the bottom, leaving Sisyphus with the maddening punishment of starting all over again, wasting efforts for an eternity.

Teachers say “Try Harder” to students, yet this mantra does not always lead to better results. By conditioning ourselves to work harder and stronger, we can become singular in our approach. Those who make it to the top of the mountain work hard, but they also find creative solutions; to do that you need mental agility. When we look into the mind of a creative thinker, we find that their brain synchronizes activity across many networks, including those in the brain’s frontal and parietal lobes. This synchronization allows creative cognition to explore many possible solutions in a short amount of time, allowing unexpected solutions to be found! 

 For example, German Philosopher Manfred Kopfer suggest that Sisyphus could “Think His Way Out” by breaking off a piece of the mountain’s top, bringing it back down after each failed attempt. Eventually, the mountain would be leveled, and his task would be no more.

#2. Reality Gaps: 

Projecting our feelings onto the world around us is one of the most common human blind spots: We frequently think people see what we see, hear what we hear, and think what we think.

In fact, each one of us has our own unique perception of the world. Successful communication relies on our abilities to quell our own thoughts and emotions to bridge these gaps in perceptions to connect, navigate, and grow with others.

To make things more difficult, people are often unable to bridge their perceptual barriers because they are stuck “closing loops” in their head to validate their own reality. When we are unable to close our own loops, we go into protection mode, reducing our abilities to be empathetic and positive. Understanding and practicing the Neuroscience of Conversations, the foundation of C-IQ, allows us to bridge reality gaps and see the world from an other’s perspectives.

#3. Nature vs Nurture:

Our understanding of the human brain has undergone several “jumps” as brain mapping technologies have evolved. Often referred to as the father of medicine, it was Hippocrates of Kos who identified the brain as the seat of cognition, emotion, and sensation. This discovery led a cultural shift in medicine, placing the brain in the driver’s seat of the body over the heart.

Up until the 1990s a static view of the brain prevailed, stating that the brain is an aggregate of autonomous, segregated mental functions. Recent research now demonstrates that instead being a collection of discrete structures, the brain is a complex web of integrated, overlapping and changing networks.

Neural circuitry, molecular profiles, and neurochemistry can be changed by experiences, shaping our habits and behavior. As new words, concepts, and experiences are integrated into our minds, we build out new networks that enable changes to take place in our brain. As Judith E. Glaser taught, “Words Create Worlds.”

As a result, the healthy brain remains highly malleable in functionality and connectivity throughout life. In one specific example, Bruce McEwen showed that the brain undergoes structural and functional remodeling and significant changes in gene expression that affects its function throughout the life course.3

It is the dynamic interaction of nature (genes) and nurture (environment and development) that allows our rich experiences to blossom. This interaction begins in utero and continues until death, allowing us to remain open to influence

Magic

 “All of our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Our perceptions are the keys that unlock the doors to each individual’s unique world. In the human brain, perception is part of a process involving external stimuli, sensory receptors, attention, transformation into mental representations (cognition) and consciousness. These processes are the summation of our personal experiences, but are they an accurate representation of the objective truth? Here are some magical properties of the brain.

#4. Mirror, Mirror: 

Have you ever wondered: As we observe and study the brain, does the brain “watch” us back? Classical psychology dictates that there are two processes that govern perception: top-down vs. bottom-up. Our senses gather information from internal and external environments and form perceptions in a bottom-up manner. When we allow experience and expectations shape our perceptions, we are processing in a top-down manner.

In the case of chronic phantom limb pain, patients who have recently lost a limb often report pain sensations coming from the missing body part. Treatments such as medication, physical therapy, and even neuromodulation are at times not enough to control the pain.

Invented by renowned neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran in 1996, the mirror box allows a patient to place their healthy limb into one side of a box, and the phantom limb on the other. The patient is prompted to perform symmetrical movements while viewing the healthy limb in the mirror side of the box. This gives the brain the impression that the phantom limb (which is just the healthy limb in the mirror) is behaving normally.4 Ramachandran demonstrated the concept of plasticity in the adult brain, showing how the mirror image helps the brain reorganize the incongruous pain sensation and visual feedback from the removed limb. The mirror box has emerged as a valid clinical, non-invasive and non-expensive treatment for phantom limb pain. 

#5. Split-Brain, Split-Mind?

Split-brain, or callosal syndrome, is caused by the surgical severing of the corpus callosum, a thick track of white matter that connects the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. This rare surgery is a surgeon’s final attempt to treat violent epileptic seizures. Surprisingly, once severed, each hemisphere continues to operate, albeit independent of each other. Classical theories propose that when the connections between hemispheres are severed, so is consciousness. That is to say, two brains equal two minds.

However, the magic of this tale is that recent research by Yair Pinto of the University of Amsterdam shows that split-brain patients have unity of consciousness.5 Despite the fact their either hemisphere has limited communications, the brain still produces a single conscious agent.

#6. The Expectant Brain:

Our brain expects, predicts, and actively creates the everyday experiences we have out of the the bioelectrical activity that is generated endogenously. Because the brain actively filters out unwanted stimulus, sometimes we miss out on what is there. If you happened to miss the double repetition of the word “the” in the first sentence of this paragraph, then you just experienced an illusion of prediction error! In a study on eye movement and cognitive processing, Rayner et al. showed how word predictability and word length have influences on word skipping.6 Your brain filters out the second “the” because it is short and predictable, thus the repetition is unnecessary and irrelevant information.

Another incredible competency of the expectant brain is the ability to interpret scrambled words. There are a few caveats; the words must be short, the first and last letters of each word must remain in their correct place, and overall the sentence must maintain basic grammatical structure in order to be predictable. Try this one out: 

I cndluo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid,  you can sitll raed tihs whoutit a pboerlm. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.

#7. The Necker Cube:

Koch, The Quest for Consciousness
Bistable Necker Cube
Source: Koch, The Quest for Consciousness

The Necker Cube is an ambiguous drawing that can be perceived in one of two ways: a) the cube is seen as front on, as if you were looking into a room or b) the cube is seen from a bird’s eye view.

This optical illusion is known as a bistable perception because a subject can only perceive one visual pattern at a time. You cannot see both cubes at once, you toggle between each percept. This illusion shows how the visual cortex is involved in processing information that leads to our conscious perceptions.

What is even more interesting is the how blind people “map” the three dimensional world. According to Harold Burton, Professor of Neuroscience at the Washington University School of Medicine, when a blind person is “reading” braille, the sensory information travels to and is processed in the visual cortex. Much like the mirror box, this counter-intuitive finding also shows how the cortex can re-organize function in the face of sensory deprivation.7

Conclusion

While traditional mythologies serve to preserve culture, origin, and the motifs of the human condition, modern myths can stand in the way of experimentation and discovery of greater truths. A proper myth tells the meaning of a particular motif, fact, or belief of the culture that created it, providing a lens into their customs, rituals, and beliefs. When navigating the mythology of the 21st century it is imperative to remember that sometimes the things that seem intuitive are often misleading upon careful consideration. It is our job as a culture to determine which myths we wish to keep, and which are in need of a new tale.

References

1. Gould, E., McEwen, B. S., Tanapat, P., Galea, L. A., & Fuchs, E. (1997, April 1). Neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the adult tree shrew is regulated by psychosocial stress and NMDA receptor activation. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9065509.

2. Boldrini, Maura, Fullmore, Camille, Alexandria, Tartt (2018). Human Hippocampal Neurogenesis Persists throughout Aging. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/cell-stem-cell/fulltext/S1934-5909(18)30121-8

3. McEwen, B. S. (2013, November). The Brain on Stress: Toward an Integrative Approach to Brain, Body, and Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4159187/.

4.Ramachandran, Altschuler, & L., E. (2009, June 8). use of visual feedback, in particular mirror visual feedback, in restoring brain function. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/132/7/1693/328686.

5.Split brain does not lead to split consciousness. (2017, January 25). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170125093823.htm

6. Rayner, K., Slattery, T. J., Drieghe, D., & Liversedge, S. P. (2011, April). Eye movements and word skipping during reading: effects of word length and predictability. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543826/.

7. Burton, H. (2003, May 15). Visual cortex activity in early and late blind people. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3667661/.