On June 12th, 2017 we learned about

The visual details you perceive are probably the product of cultural priorities

Where you grow up can shape your politics, your preferences in food and culture, and even what you can see. Thanks to the fact that our visual perceptions of the world are heavily processed and edited by our brains, what we “see” depends a lot on what our brains think is worth seeing. This can lead to seeing things that aren’t really there, or perhaps being more sensitive to certain stimuli than others. Studies of people from who grew up in different cultures have been examining cases where people don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, and some clues are finally emerging to explain why such differences might develop in the first place.

One of these gaps was first officially noted in the 1960s, in the form of some failed optical illusions. The image in question is called the Müller-Lyer illusion, where two to three horizontal lines are presented close to each other in parallel. The only real difference is that each line has simple arrowheads pointed either away from each other or towards each other. It was assumed that everyone saw the line with inward-pointing arrowheads as being longer than its counterparts, but that proved to only be true to people growing up in Western cultures. People less anchored to European traditions, such as the Suku tribespeople from Angola, had no trouble recognizing that the horizontal lines were the same size. Somehow, their brains were never taught to misjudge those proportions, and the jury is still out as to what the basis for this difference is.

Lines versus written languages

A study comparing the perceptions of Americans and Canadians to people raised in Japan may be getting closer to unraveling these sorts of perceptual gaps. Test participants were shown a series of simple vertical lines arranged in a grid, then asked to pick out which segment was different from the others. When that difference was in one line’s length, North Americans were quicker to find a longer line, but slower to find a single shorter line, while Japanese participants showed no preference for either task. Japanese participants did seem to be less attuned to the lines’ angles, taking longer to find a line that was straighter than the others when they were all presented at a slight angle.

This might not represent any deep truth or change in mindset as much as a form of visual training. Our brains do their best to be efficient, and when certain stimuli are important to parse, our brains focus appropriately. When something isn’t reinforced as important, we can ignore it a bit. In the context of this study, researchers suspect that the writing systems that each participant was raised with trained them to notice certain visual details over others. Stroke length is more important in many Asian characters, whereas the angle of stokes in letters conveys meaning in Western scripts (as a crude example, many Japanese fonts don’t even include italic characters). This type of visual specialization might not explain all cultural differences in perception, but the underlying mechanism of how our brains selectively build our view of the world is likely to play a role in any context.

Source: You don’t see what I see?, Scienmag

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