On June 4th, 2017 we learned about

Our brains fabricate and then favor unseen information

It’s common to tell children not to let their imaginations run away with them, but that may be ignoring the fact that our brains apparently favor synthesized information over the real thing. That’s not to say that an imagined boogeyman has to seem more convincing than the closet it’s supposedly hiding in, but does point to an overall pattern wherein our brains try to fill in gaps in our perception, and then put a confusing amount of trust in that same information.

Missing what’s right in front of you

This kind of activity has been observed in multiple forms of perception, but a recent study focused on how our brains deal with a well-known deficiency in our visual abilities— the blind spot. Most of the back of your eyeball is covered in light-sensing rod and cone cells, but information from those cells needs to still get to the brain. This connection is made through the optic nerve, which necessitates a small portion of your eye that lacks rods or cones, and thus is effectively blind. This isn’t a problem because we generally have two eyes, and the brain just substitutes visual information from the opposite eye to cover the gap. When one eye isn’t available, you still don’t notice the blind spot, because your brain decides to make an even bigger substitution, and just fabricates visual information on it’s own.

Your brain is pretty good at this visual cloning process, which is part of why you’ve probably never been aware of it in your life. The blind spot is pretty small for each eye, and so brains will basically copy and repeat nearby visual information. In an experiment, scientists from the University of Osnabrück were able to set up this scenario with carefully arranged images of vertical stripes. Once one eye was covered, the portion of the pattern that corresponded with a test subject’s blind spot was substituted with horizontal stripes instead. Thanks to the brain’s efforts to keep a continuous image, test subjects only saw the uninterrupted vertical patterning.

Fake views

What surprised researchers was how much people seemed to prefer the “faked” visuals. When asked if an image their brain filled in was more or less “real” than an actual image of uninterrupted vertical stripes, people picked the fabricated image 65 percent of the time. Even though the brain could know when it was making these kind of synthetic perceptions, it somehow favored them beyond random chance. With no obvious advantage for picking a faked image over the real world, researchers are at loss to explain this apparent preference.

Obviously, there’s a bit of a difference from filling in your blind spot to imagining monsters, fairies or large scale conspiracies. However, this does show how willing we are to put our trust in imagined information. Even when the brain is the entity making things up, it seems that it’s quite happy to completely fool itself.

Source: Our brains prefer invented visual information to the real thing by Clare Wilson, New Scientist

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