Monday, September 22, 2014

Brain tricks (part one)
          There’s a fascinating series on the National Geographic Channel called Brain Games.  It’s about how our miraculous brains have evolved exquisitely to learn and adapt and remember and solve problems and protect us, but also about how our brains can be influenced for better or worse and sometimes  can even be utterly confounded by optical illusions, suggestion, unusual motions, or sensory or instinct triggers. 
          Quite often the world around us is not at all what it seems to be.
          Consider, for a major example, that there are actually no colors in our world, or indeed throughout the universe.  That’s right.  No colors whatsoever.  There is only the pervasive electromagnetic spectrum, which is a wide range of colorless energy waves including many that constantly surround and bathe us but which we cannot perceive, such as microwaves, radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet waves and cosmic rays.  Included in this same broad spectrum is a relatively narrow band of waves we are attuned to and which our brains can translate into various colors.  In other words, colors occur only within our brains.  We have three kinds of cones in our retinas that receive certain wavelengths and send signals to the brain, where those incoming signals are cleverly blended to achieve millions of color shades.  And everything we perceive, including color, is influenced greatly by context.  A white sheet of paper under pink light will appear to be blue.  At twilight all color perceptions begin to fail because contrast diminishes.  The clearer the atmosphere, the closer distant objects appear to be.  The moon, which can appear to be brilliant white against the blackness of space, is actually the color of asphalt.
          For all creatures, what is seen is but a narrow range of electromagnetic waves which their brains have evolved to translate and interpret according to needs.  Bees can see ultraviolet waves to help them home in on flower nectar.  Other creatures like marine mammals are equipped with only one cone type in their eyes so must interpret their world in monochrome, but it’s all they need.  Dogs can’t perceive red, yellow, or orange nearly as well as we do, but their field of view is about 240 degrees as opposed to 180 degrees at best for us.  Their wide-angle sight helps them hunt.
          Consider that no movie you've ever seen has actually moved.  All we’re seeing on the screen is many still images presented to us in rapid succession.  As with the illusion of colors, the illusion of movie motion occurs only in our brains.  Pets probably see the flickering series of still TV  images because they’re far more sensitive to abrupt motion than we are.  Our brains automatically blend the flickering so we perceive smooth motion; it’s the only reason movies and TV work realistically for us.  And 3-D and giant-screen flicks, especially those with movable seats, can fool us into believing we’re speeding along on a roller coaster or hurtling down a ski slope or plunging through high seas, or standing on the slippery lip of a cliff, to such an extent we might actually become queasy and fearful. 
          Conjurers have long known how easily color, context, contrast, visual and mental distraction, and sensory manipulation can be employed to work their spellbinding magic for us.  Ancient architects knew that certain building elements had to be deliberately and subtly distorted so they would appear to be correctly proportioned.  There are intentionally no absolutely straight lines on the Parthenon, and the corner columns are very slightly larger and closer to the adjacent columns because they show against a bright sky, which would otherwise make them appear slimmer and farther apart than the interior columns with their darker building background.  In large part because of many such reasoned design tricks, the Parthenon remains magnificent twenty-four centuries after the Greeks built it.  (There’s a full-sized replica of it, by the way, in Nashville, of all places.)  Fine artists long ago learned how to control contrast and color and shadowing to create the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional painting.  Musicians have used subtle trickery to enhance their composed strains and evoke moods from romance to patriotism to melancholy to apprehension.  Beethoven was adept at this sort of thing, sometimes purposely introducing a jarring, dissonant phrase, for example, just so a following melodious phrase would sound all the more pleasant by contrast.  And who can resist tapping a toe to a rousing Sousa march with all its brassy, percussive trickery?  Movie makers, of course, have the benefit of such clever background music to enhance the stories unfolding on our screens.
          We writers, too, have our secret bag of effective brain tricks that can be most useful, especially in concocting suspense.
          Next Monday I’ll reveal a few of these closely-guarded secrets in part two of Brain Tricks.
If you don’t get the Geographic Channel, Google “Brain Games” for some astonishing videos that will tease and delight you.

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