The other day I was hanging out with a friend of mine on this lake. Not really on the lake, next to it. There was this restaurant with an outdoor bar near one of the shores, or edges, or whatever you all the border between the lake the land.
We were watching all the people that were jet skiing, water-skiing, and boating. There seemed to be quite a few recreationists using motorized assistance in their recreational endeavors. There wasn’t much wind, so we didn’t see any wind surfers. There were a few swimmers, but for the most part, everybody had some kind of mechanized tool to assist them in their recreation. Then we saw something particularly strange. Something that both my friend and I had to do a double take, stop mid way through our conversation, and ask each other to verify what we’d just seen, to make we hadn’t slipped into some shared hallucination.
It’s kind of like when your brain is on autopilot, and starts to use your stored memories of what is going on around you to create the representation of reality, and then something completely upsets the system. They’ve done plenty of high level studies, using brain scans and cat scans and all kinds of other scans and when we are awake and conscious, up to fifty percent of everything we see, feel, hear, taste, and smell (all the data coming in through our five senses) is generated internally. Like when you go back to a web page without refreshing your browsers. You’re really looking at the website as it really is, only the way it was when you first surfed there five or ten minutes ago.
Like if you have a Yahoo! Email account, and you go to the Yahoo! Homepage, you’ll see so many messages in your inbox. Then if you surf someplace else, and then come back to Yahoo, you might not see any increase in mail, even though your buddy just sent you an email. Once you refresh your browser, you’ll see the new mail.
Scientists believe the brain works in the same way. If you are in a familiar environment, and the things around you aren’t changing all that much, your brain will start to rely on your stored memories to create what you think you see around you, rather than what is actually going on. So when something strange or out of the ordinary happens, your brain has to refresh it’s browser, and that can be a weird feeling.
Especially if that strange thing happens quickly, before your brain can refresh itself to catch up on what is really going on. Your brain doesn’t like to work very hard (or maybe that’s just me) so it will usually defer to stored memories whenever possible. It doesn’t like to continually “see” what is really going on unless it has to.
Many experiments bear this out. This is a reason why eyewitness testimony is the weakest link in any criminal case. One example of this is an experiment where they had a “criminal” come in and steal a professor’s briefcase during a lecture. Later, when they interviewed the students, the description of the “criminal” was all over the place. Some said tall, some said short, there wasn’t even any agreement on what ethnicity he was or even what color clothes he was wearing. Everybody seemed to base what they “saw” on their own experience with criminals, be it in real life or from watching criminals on TV.
There are all kinds of cool optical illusions that make use of this seeming limit on the brain. But is it really a limitation? What the brain in accuracy and detail, it more than makes up in speed. Our brains have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to deliver split second life and death decisions based on quickly changing data. Those that had slower brains, that sat around to contemplate things, didn’t last very long.
Those that had quick brains that decided when to run and when to fight, lived long enough to pass on those genes. So today we are left with a brain that is incredibly fast, but sometimes makes errors in reality detection. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to “refresh our browsers” to see what is really going on around us, rather then relying on assumptions and guesses.
Which is kind of what my friend and I did at the lake. It only happened because there was a momentary lull in our conversation, and we happened to be looking out over the lake at the same time, and toward the same spot. There was this guy on this Jet Ski that would jump out of the water, and then dive back in. He would dive completely under the water, Jet Ski and all, and then come back up a few meters later. Not such a big deal, as I’ve seen this in Jet Ski shows before.
But what we both saw was that this guy a was on a jet ski, by himself, and jumped up in the air, and then dove into the water, like normal, but when he came out there was a girl on the jet ski with him. As soon as we both saw that, we completely lost track of our conversation, and then asked each other if we both saw what we think we saw. After we verified that we both saw the same thing, we then focused intently on the water, specifically the area of this strange occurrence.
We weren’t exactly sure, but this “couple” did a few more tricks, and then both rode to the side of the lake, and as they did so a bunch of people were clapping and taking photos. It appeared to be some kind of show that was sponsored by a liquor company, who was hosting a big lakeside party that evening.
Had we been watching the whole show, it might not have been impressive as it was. But to watch one guy go under water, and come up with some girl on his jet ski is pretty cool thing to just happen to notice in the middle of some conversation about something that I can’t even remember.