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Each week on Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, explore different aspects of human behavior and the brain.

Why Seeing Isn't Believing

Philosophers have long proposed that there is no objective reality. And now science agrees — at least as far as our personal experiences are concerned.

Perception is the process of interpreting our present environment through the lens of our past experiences. Everything we sense, think, feel, and even remember, actually arises in response to a combination of what is currently happening and our stored long-term memories. 

In this edition of Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Bob Duke and Dr. Art Markman discuss the evolutionary advantages of flexible perception, and how this process can influence both our behavior and modern day society.

All of our memories are organized into networks called schemas. Related information is stored together via connections between neurons, allowing it to be retrieved together. New experiences are processed through their relationships to old schemas and then stored with them. This process happens outside of our awareness, with every experience. 

The more a schema is used, the more connections it forms, making it stronger. It's more likely to be retrieved to interpret new information, and its content becomes much harder to change. That’s one of the reasons why, for example, if you play sports and learn how to throw a ball incorrectly, it can be much harder to relearn the proper technique. The same principle applies if you accidentally teach your pets bad behavior and have to retrain them.

This principle also applies to social situations and stereotypes. We make “stereotypes” about everything—when we walk into a room, we are able to identify the furniture, who the people are, whether we like either of them, what’s unfamiliar, and what’s likely to happen. All in an instance, everything in its cognitively-appropriate category. All thanks to our schemas.

This ability to make instantaneous predictions about the future is necessary for our survival. We are able to judge what is likely safe and when to be on-guard.

However, sometimes these predictions are wrong or over-generalized. But they still seem right since they were produced unconsciously. When they are about a group of people — whether it be related to race, sex, sexual orientation, or any other categorical aspect of humanity — this process can result in discrimination, violence, or, as history has unfortunately too often seen, murder.      

The key is to better understand the processes behind perception. When we evaluate a person and have a chance to reflect, we should do so — is this view accurate? This practice will enable us to make the best decisions in crisis situations where the results may literally be life-changing.

Rebecca McInroy is an award-winning show creator, host, and executive producer for KUT, KUTX, and KUT.ORG.
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