What the Muller-Lyer Illusion Teaches Us About Maya

Posted by Suzanne Dulin on

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These are notes from the January 19, 2017 Live Call.

What is Cognitive Studies?

Tonight's topic is how is about how the mind works. In college I majored in philosophy. Most of my work was in the area of cognitive studies, which is the field of study closely related to artificial intelligence research. The fundamental question of cognitive studies is, how do we know what we know? In other words, how do our minds work at a conceptual level - not at the neurological level, not at the medical level, but how does cognition work? How do we take all the light that is coming into our eyes and turn it into vision? How do we take the sensation of something touching our skin, and turn it into a perception of space? How do we turn sounds into words?
Although a lot of areas of philosophy are, well, philosophical and abstract, cognitive studies is very intertwined with computer programming. All the things we are learning about how the mind works are being used by programmers to create systems like Siri that let us talk to a computer using natural speech.

The Turing Test

One of the reasons that there has been so much study in cognitive studies is because of the work of one of the early computer pioneers, Alan Turing. One of his academic papers led to something that we call in the cognitive studies field the Turing test. The Turing Test is where somebody  is having a conversation with either a computer or a person. They don't know which one. And if they are talking to a computer, the computer can imitate a person so well that the human can't tell that they aren't talking to another human. They are fooled by the computer.
They actually do the Turing test every year. One of the leading experts in the field of cognitive studies, Daniel Dennett, hosts it. Humans are put at computers to have a chat session. On the other end of the chat could be a human, could be a computer. Then the panelist try to determine - am I talking to a real person or to a chatbot? 
In 2014 there was an announcement that one of the chat bots passed the Turing Test. However, there is a big asterisk on that victory. The chat bot was mimicking a 13-year-old Ukranian boy. So although it did mimic human intelligence in a way that fooled the judges, it kinda change the parameters of the test by mimicking someone with limited English and intelligence. 
However we're getting very very close to computer systems that can successfully mimic human intelligence at this point.
Because Alan Turing so long ago, long before computers had the complexity to do the things they do today, back when computers filled whole rooms and the world was very mechanical. Because he had this idea that a computer can actually imitate human intelligence, there has been a drive on the part of computer programmers from the very early days of computing to figure out how to make computers that really can think like human beings.
As programmers started trying to make Turing's vision of human smart computers a reality, one of the big stumbling blocks to doing this was,  we didn't actually know how the human mind worked in a way that could be described to a computer in programming language. That is, we couldn't break down all the steps of thinking into a logical sequence.
Part of the problem was computers weren't powerful enough, but the other part of the problem was that we didn't know what minds actually do when they think. Sure, we can see the neurons firing. We know about chemical pathways to cells. But, we don't really know how consciousness happens. 

How Does Consciousness Work?

Some of the work in cognitive studies has to do with vision. We have this illusion that we walk around in the world and our eyes are like a window onto the world out there. Or that the world is projected through eyes onto a movie screen inside our brains. We think that world out there is a one to one replica of the world as we perceive it up here. The sky is blue. The ground is brown. The grass is green. Tables have a table shape. It's such a powerful illusion, and so helpful to us that it's incredibly difficult to grasp that it's not true.
 
Now I'm going to show you what I mean. I'm going to try to get you to grok this.
I'm gonna show you the world's simplest optical illusion, the Muller-Lyer illusion. This optical illusion consists of two lines that are equal. There is an arrow on the end of both lines. The arrows on this line point in. The arrows on the other line point out. When you look at this you instantly will see that the one with the arrows pointing in appears longer to you. And the one with the arrows pointing out appears shorter.
The reason that we perceive this optical illusion this way has to do with depth perception. If you were to imagine this being the corner of a room then you can instantly see that the one with the arrows pointing would be a corner receding away from you and the one with the arrows pointing out would be a corner jutting toward you. So your mind kind of cheats this image so that the one that that should be pulling out toward you appears smaller than the one that's receding away from you. That helps you to walk safely in a room with corners and edges. 
But the important thing about this optical illusion isn't that it's about depth perception. To me that's not the important thing. The important thing about this optical illusion is that you can't not see it.
I just told you the whole trick. I'm like the magician that showed you exactly where I'm hiding the bunny so that it appears to pop out of the hat. Like I just told you the entire trick and you still cannot  see this line here as being equal to this line. You can squint. You can cover one eye up. You will always see this line as longer than this one.
This is the world's simplest optical illusion. This is not cleverly drawn. It's two lines with simple arrows on the end.

Consciousness is Like Seeing Through an Instagram Filter ALL THE TIME

So let me just repeat what I am saying: the way that you perceive these lines as one of them is longer than the other, that's like the Instagram filter version of the actual image.
If you could somehow see this image as it actually was, you would be able to perceive both lines as being equal.
Imagine that you took a picture and you applied one of those Instagram filters to it and somehow you deleted the original image. All you had was the one with the More Cowbell filter on it. That's what your mind is like. Your mind is like More Cowbell all the time and all the original pictures are tossed away in some filing cabinet somewhere you can't find it.
I'm going to try to explain what I am saying one more time in another way. Not because I think you are stupid, but because this concept is so foreign to our understand of the way we think, that I'm just trying to find different ways of explaining it until one of them clicks for you.
 
We have this belief that what were seeing is a one-to-one correlation to the world out there. We believe that in our minds is an exact little miniature replica version of the world outside of us. By the truth is, you can't even see these two lines the way they really are. In fact we don't have a clue what the world out there really looks like.

But Wait, There's More!

Now I've been talking about seeing and vision which is our most important sense. It takes up the most real estate in our brains.  But, what I'm saying is true of every sense that we have. So for example with the sensation of touch if you've ever explored this concept of referred pain it means that you experience pain in places other than where the nerve endings are that are there actually receiving that pain. I have really funny example of this. I get restless leg syndrome. I went to a massage therapist who specialize in orthopedic massage. She could hit places on my left leg that would stimulate the restless leg experience in my RIGHT leg. It was really kind of freaky. Well that's referred pain. It's when you experience the sensation somewhere other than where you are being touched or having the issue. It's explains phantom limb syndrome which is where people experience pain, sometimes excruciating pain, in limbs that they don't have.
So there's that one and the same thing happens with sound. With sound of we do a lot of altering of noises particularly words.  Think about if you are a native English speaker how when you hear English you can pick all the separate words and make them out but if you're listening to like Chinese it sounds like gibberish. In fact I was just talking with my daughters roommate who is from Vietnam and she was talking about this. She said I think this is how Vietnamese must sound to people don't speak Vietnamese and she started making this gibberish which is exactly what Vietnamese sounds like to me. But she was kind of laughing because to her Vietnamese is her innate language; it's how she thinks.
I'll give another quick example of this. I had a college friend who took a semester abroad to Brazil. He became fluent in Portuguese. On his plane trip back to America, there were two channels on the in flight TV playing the exact same program. He called over the flight attendant and asked, why are these two channels playing the same show. One was in Portuguese; one was in English. I bet if you were to sit on a plane and watch one channel in Portuguese and one in English you'd be able to tell them apart. What was happening there for him in his mind?
Anyway I could go on and on and on about this. I literally studied this for years in college and it's been an interest of mine ever since, but now I want to tie this in to yoga.

Now to the Yoga

The yogis understood this concept and they talked about the world of illusion: Maya. Maya means the world of illusion. The yogis understood that the way that we perceive the world is not the way the world really is. They understood that we could never see the two equal lines as equal. And that is a really hard thing to know in your heart. It has to hit you at some point that the world as you see it out there is not the world as you know it. They understood that we would we will never ever ever be able to really know what the world feels like. We'll never know what color the sky really is or even if it is a color. We only know how we perceive the world through our minds.
I've taken this from the Wikipedia article on Maya, from the section on the Upanishads. By the way, the term Maya is used differently in different texts. But here I am talking about it as it is used in the Upanishads.
 
Hendrick Vroom explains, "The term Maya has been translated as 'illusion,' but then it does not concern normal illusion. Here 'illusion' does not mean that the world is not real and simply a figment of the human imagination. Maya means that the world is not as it seems; the world that one experiences is misleading as far as its true nature is concerned."[35] Lynn Foulston states, "The world is both real and unreal because it exists but is 'not what it appears to be'."[6] According to Wendy Doniger, "to say that the universe is an illusion (māyā) is not to say that it is unreal; it is to say, instead, that it is not what it seems to be, that it is something constantly being made. Māyā not only deceives people about the things they think they know; more basically, it limits their knowledge."[36]
I like to give you a practice to try out that helps you to explore the concepts I present in these live calls. 

Practice Tibetan Dream Yoga

Today's practice is from Tibetan dream yoga. The practice is to start noticing things in your ordinary waking life that are dream like. A good example of this type of thing is the famous scene from the movie American Beauty where there's that paper bag floating along.
I'm in that scene this paper bag has this magical, dreamlike quality to it.
Tomorrow I want you all to start noticing the things that in your daily life that seemed dreamlike; the things that don't really makes sense. I'm going to spoiler alert this one for you because I've done this and I try to remind myself to do it but the funny thing is that life does doesn't really make that much sense. The funny thing is that you've been filtering out all the crazy stuff all time in order to make your world make sense. It turns out that your daily life has a lot of surreal qualities to it but you just don't pay attention to them.

Some Things Aren't Like this Illusion

The real value of coming to an understanding that the world out there is not at all the way you see it touch it, taste it, hear it in your mind is that you start to understand that there are certain aspects of your perception that you DO have control over that you might not think you do. So while you will never see these two lines as being equal you can start to change your perception of other people by practicing yoga and meditation. Like, for example, if you were to practice metta-meditation on a regular basis you might start to see and experience other people with more compassion.
I live on Long Island. I have a friend who moved here from the South. He hates New Yorkers. He thinks all the people here are terrible. I think the people in New York are just people but he's got this filter on his mind where people from New York go through the filter and they turn into monsters. You have access to that filter. You'll never see these two lines are equal, but you can change how you see New Yorkers.

Install the More Cowbell Filter for Everything

A lot of beginning yogis will not attempt certain postures because they scare them. In their minds they think, I can't do a headstand. I can't do it. And because they have the belief that they can't do it that becomes the truth. That's a filter that they're seeing the world through. You can change that out for another filter. So I have a rule in my in the classes where we never say never. We always say I can't do it yet. I can't do a handstand yet. I cannot do the splits yet. Use different language to install new filters in your mind. Most people find that once they mentally shift that idea in their head of whether something is possible or not, then suddenly the impossible thing becomes approachable. Start questioning the fundamentals of how you think.
I've talk a lot in this group about how I'm starting up a business and what I learned in the process is that I had these huge blocks around business. It's been a surprisingly spiritual path to start up. I was shocked to learn at all these little filters that I have in my mind about business and money. I really would say things not just to myself but to my friends like, "I don't know how to make money." I started seeing that I was talking to myself about money they way people talk about headstands. Now I have to remind myself. I don't know how to market yet I don't know how to build an email list yet. Suddenly these magical business skills became things that I can learn if I can find the right teacher and if I stick with.
I didn't really explain the theory behind this but the reason that our brains can't see these two lines is equal is because we operate better that way. It helps us to survive. Imagine if you walked into a room and you didn't have a way to instantly see which corner was receeding and which was coming at you. You wouldn't be able to walk. Oliver Sacks wrote a book where he talks about a man who was like this. 
On the other hand some of these learned patterns these habits that shape your this world; some of them are super valuable and some of them prevent you from operating well. Yogis historically have done amazing physical feats. They are showing that the things you think are impossible can be done. You can stop your heartbeat at will. You can sleep with your feet behind your head. You can withstand the heat of a fire and not be burned. Yogis are like scientists exploring these filters of what is possible to do and what is not. I want you to live your life like this. Try to discover where your mind filters are. You know, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it is possible to see these lines as being equal after all.
Start a new project. Start changing all the filters to More Cowbell.

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