The binding problem and how your brain makes sense of the world.

I’ve been interested in how our brain makes sense of the world for a long time, probably about as long as I’ve been an atheist. I think a lot of the supernatural experiences that people feel they’ve had are actually the result of perfectly natural phenomena which they’ve misinterpreted due to a lack of understanding of how their brain works. Everyone’s familiar with the various optical illusions which demonstrate how easily our eyes can be fooled, but most never stop to consider that it’s not our eyes that are being fooled; rather it’s our brains that are being fooled. Our eyes like all our other sensory organs are constantly transmitting a flood of information to our brain which, as it turns out, isn’t as good at taking it all in as we’d like to believe.

Yeah, we’ve all been told that the most amazing computer that has ever existed is the human brain, but that’s not really true. Our brains are pretty pathetic at processing all of the data they take in and so they compensate by cheating: taking shortcuts and ignoring a lot of the input. Keep in mind that it’s not just our senses that our brain has to worry about, it also runs all the bodily systems and is getting tons of feedback from internal sources which it has to respond to. Our lungs don’t inflate and deflate on their own, they’re controlled by a section of the brain. With all the crap it has to do every second of every day it’s really no wonder that our brain has to cheat a little when interpreting all the external stimuli. It doesn’t help that different parts of the brain handle different parts of the data processing.

For example, scientists have known for a long time that different regions of the brain are involved in the interpretation of color, shape and movement. What they didn’t understand is how the brain puts all of that together in a seemingly perfectly synchronized manner that allows us to recognize, say, a red ball rolling across a table for what it is. This is called the “binding problem” as in “how does our brain bind all the different data together to allow us to see a red ball moving?”

Now scientists at the California Institute of Technology researching this issue have come up with a very simple optical illusion that answers the question. Our brain cheats by making assumptions to fill in any gaps in data by drawing on past experience. They did a segment on NPR the other day called Tricks the Brain Plays that includes the optical illusion so you can try it out for yourself. It opens a small browser window that has a field of random red and green dots that are moving up or down the screen. Within 8 inches of the display you’ll think all the red dots are moving down and all the green ones are moving up, but if you shift your eyes to the left or the right of the image the direction of the dots will reverse. If you move back from your monitor you’ll realize that the truth is there are three columns of dots. The ones on the left and right have the red dots moving up and the green ones down and the middle column is the reverse.

The Illusion Explained: What’s happening is an example of a “binding problem” in the brain. Typically, color and movement are thought to be processed by different parts of the brain. But a red ball rolling across a table looks like a red ball rolling across a table because the brain puts the movement and color information together to form a coherent perception.

The brain is trying to do that in this illusion; it’s incorrectly binding color and motion so it can tell us that all the red dots are moving in the same direction throughout our “world,” in this case the animation display. The illusion breaks down if you stand several feet away from the monitor, and watch the illusion (a long mouse cable or a friend is necessary to do this.)

Even if you know ahead of time what the truth is that doesn’t stop your brain from cheating. It’s worse than that, though, some scientists have discovered that it’s entirely possible for you to completely miss something that happens right in front of you or that things have changed. Professor Daniel Simons of the Visual Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois has done some amazing experiments on what he calls “change blindness” and “inattentional blindness.” There was an interesting article printed earlier this month in The Daily Telegraph called Did you see the Gorilla? that talks about these experiments.

In one experiment, people who were walking across a college campus were asked by a stranger for directions. During the resulting chat, two men carrying a wooden door passed between the stranger and the subjects. After the door went by, the subjects were asked if they had noticed anything change.

Half of those tested failed to notice that, as the door passed by, the stranger had been substituted with a man who was of different height, of different build and who sounded different. He was also wearing different clothes.

Despite the fact that the subjects had talked to the stranger for 10-15 seconds before the swap, half of them did not detect that, after the passing of the door, they had ended up speaking to a different person. This phenomenon, called change blindness, highlights how we see much less than we think we do.

Working with Christopher Chabris at Harvard University, Simons came up with another demonstration that has now become a classic, based on a videotape of a handful of people playing basketball. They played the tape to subjects and asked them to count the passes made by one of the teams.

Around half failed to spot a woman dressed in a gorilla suit who walked slowly across the scene for nine seconds, even though this hairy interloper had passed between the players and stopped to face the camera and thump her chest.

However, if people were simply asked to view the tape, they noticed the gorilla easily. The effect is so striking that some of them refused to accept they were looking at the same tape and thought that it was a different version of the video, one edited to include the ape.

If you stop to think about it you can probably come up with some examples of both of these phenomena in your own life. My recent car accident is a perfect example of inattentional blindness as I never saw the oncoming car until just before it hit me as I was busy focusing on a jeep that was making a right turn onto the same road I was trying to turn left onto. I was so focused on the Jeep that I never saw the Sebring until it hit me.

So, yes, I believe that you think you know what you saw when you show up here and try to convince me that Elvis pulled up to you on a street corner and impregnated you with a mere kiss and I’m not in any way impugning your honesty when I question you on it. I just know that our brains experience a lot of things that aren’t true as well as misses a lot of things that are true. If more people would keep that in mind, so to speak, there’d probably be less of a market for the tabloids out there.

Oh, if you’d like to check out the video clips of Professor Daniel Simons’ experiments you can do so by clicking here.

27 thoughts on “The binding problem and how your brain makes sense of the world.

  1. I’m sure most pet owners can back me up with this one.

    Any lump of clothes, or bag or groceries convincingly turns into your pet when seen peripherally. Usually in some strange pose that causes you to glance over only to find out what it really is.

    This visual goof is often so convincing that even if you look, identify the blob as what it really is, and look away you will still “catch your pet out of the corner of your eye” in the same location and pose seconds later.

  2. Frac - yeah, totally!  And I had a white mouse, so even a random spot of sunlight on the floor would make me think he’d gotten out of his house for a second!

    Strangely, though, the red-and-green-dots illusion doesn’t seem to work on me.  I think it might have something to do with the fact that I’m somewhat colorblind - when I look at the illusion, I automatically see three very distinct columns, no matter where I’m looking or how far away I am.

    Les, have you read any of Steven Pinker’s work?  Great stuff on cognitive science, and the inner workings and abilities of the brain.  He’s also very good at explaining even extremely technical subjects.  If you haven’t already, check him out!


    Joe P Guy

  3. Another [perhaps] interesting tidbit for those of you who didn’t pay attention to or forgot from 7th grade biology: the “blind spot” in your vision (that is, the spot in your field of vision that is ocluded by the placement of the bundle of nerves in the middle of your retina) is ever present wherever you look, and your brain in fact “camouflages” the blindspot so well that you wouldn’t notice it even if you were looking for it.  For example, look at an intricate painting from up close so that it fills your field of vision.  Unless you knew how to look for the blindspot (and know what it even looks like), your brain won’t register the “missing data” at all.  Surprisingly, the blind spot isn’t anywhere near the “periphery” of your field of vision, but in actuality quite close to wherever you’re focusing in on.  That would seem to explain, for example, why I still can’t seem to find a single quality performance by Keanu Reaves, ever.

  4. Don’t let the b*ann3r ad makers get ahold of this information. They’ll come up with more obnoxious things. Gah… Or maybe they’ll all give up their jobs in despair of ever overcoming banner blindness? Now there’s a pretty picture for minds to bind.

    (Text munged to muck with the s3arch engin3 spiders.)

  5. Add distorted memory to distorted perception.  I just started reading The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel L. Schacter and that’s swirling around in my head as I read this terrific entry.

    Schacter talks about absent-mindedness, transience of memory, blocking, misattribution, suggesibility, bias, and persistence.  (With lots of interesting legal, philosophical and religious implications) So a shadow tricks the eye (or rather the brain) and then when the event is remembered it is shaped by lots of forces in the brain, and stored as a “story” rather than as a recording.  The brain often reconstructs exact details rather than storing them.

    My recent car accident is a perfect example of inattentional blindness

    That’s why I won’t ride a motorcycle anymore.  I’ve started to realize how much I miss of the world around me - having made some spectacular mistakes behind the wheel (that luckily turned out OK.) The truck I just didn’t see that was right in front of me.

    And, how much others must be missing including the overloaded, cell-phone-talking, SUV driving office worker.  They’re not even looking for the bike in the first place so odds are very good they won’t see it.  It’s on the retina, all right, but it never makes it to the frontal cortex.

  6. you should check out the book “Mind Wide Open” very interesting and easy to pick up. He goes through a lot of tests that explain phenomenon and behaviors at the chemical and electrical level.

  7. Actually, ‘experiments’ of such sort have been carried out in the past by … lawyers. Specifically, in relation to the law of evidence and how witness view and remember an incident.

    There was this famous ‘experiment’ more of a demonstration by a professor to his new law students. It occured at the University of Chicago a long time ago. During a lecture someone came bursting in and there was an altercation, some shouting and the person ‘shot’ on of the students who proceeded to explode a pack of fake blood/tomato sauce. After the ‘incident’, the students in the class were asked to write a witness report. And despite the incident occuring just moments ago, their accounts were wildly different. There is also the added factor of subconscious bias that affects one’s perception as in the Chicago incident there were people who identified the shooter’s race wrongly. There is even dispute over which side of the lecture room did the person enter from.

    Of course such experiments cannot be done nowadays simply because, there is a high chance that one of the traumatised students might sue and simply the experiment could be seen as unethical as no consent was sought from the participants.

    There are many other experiments and such done by law professors in the past in relation to how the mind process information. And each of them generally supports the conclusion that a human witness often do not view the events as they occur.

  8. I hope this isn’t too off the subject but I found this interesting test:

    Battleground God

    My results:

    {The average player of this activity to date takes 1.39 hits and bites 1.12 bullets. 205664 people have so far undertaken this activity.

    You suffered zero direct hits and bit 3 bullets.
    This compares with the average player of this activity to date who takes 1.39 hits and bites 1.12 bullets

    38.63% of the people who have completed this activity have, like you, been awarded the TPM Service Medal.

    7.35% of the people who have completed this activity emerged unscathed with the TPM Medal of Honour.

    45.97% of the people who have completed this activity took very little damage and were awarded the TPM Medal of Distinction.

    205664 people have completed this activity to date.}

    I guess I let my emotions cloud my perceptions of the questions.

  9. That illusion doesn’t work for me either.
    I’ve tried 8,4 and 12 inches away,just see three columns moving in opposite directions.
    Since I’m not at all colourblind I think it is for the same reason I sometimes get carsick
    (when I read as a passenger). It seems that the eyes of people with this type of carsickness dart about tiny amounts all the time while the eyes of non-carsick people keep pretty steady (for carsickness you need some further interaction with your motionsensors).
    It might have worked but a fraction of a second after first looking at it I HAD to look to the side because something there just seemed wrong!

    Do get hold of Steven Pinker’s “How The Mind Works”,if you haven’t already Les! Essential reading on this matter.

  10. Thanks Brock that was a nifty little test.

    I made it through completely unscathed!

    Logic Rules!

  11. In case the link didn’t work here’s my test results…

    205721 people have completed this activity to date.
    You suffered zero direct hits and bit zero bullets.
    This compares with the average player of this activity to date who takes 1.39 hits and bites 1.12 bullets.
    7.35% of the people who have completed this activity, like you, emerged unscathed with the TPM Medal of Honour.
    45.97% of the people who have completed this activity took very little damage and were awarded the TPM Medal of Distinction.

    Sorry, can’t pass up a chance to blow my own horn!

  12. That was cool.  But as I got toward the end of the test I found myself nervous about the answers.  What if I have to bite a bullet?  I could end up scoring as a complete flake!  I could end up wearing crystals and magnets and supporting Intelligent Design!

    But it turned out all right - I got through without a scratch, which according to the scoring dealie is about one person out of 13.  Whew!

    Wonder if it’s possible for a theist to get through unscathed?

  13. I don’t know about theists, but as a rationalist and agnostic, I had to bite 3 bullets. Why I think I dodged them can be read in my blog…

  14. I only bit one bullet throughout that test, but I think it had to do with the wording of the question (is it foolish to believe in a god without irrevocable proof).  I just think it is.  Of course, if there were FOSSILS of GOD which somehow proved God were existent, I would have more faith in the idea.  Evolution HAS fossilized evidence - Christianity does not have such evidence for the miracles it’s produced.  Not to mention that there is NO proof of the existence of a God.  At all.

    So how does this contradict my logic of believing in evolution, finding that without undeniable evidence I find it foolish to believe in god?  Bullet biting my ass.

    I deserve the medal of honour.  OF HONOUR!!!

    Then again, what the hell do I care how I score on some internet test??

    Interesting entry, Les.  Very rational!

  15. Congratulations!

    You have been awarded the TPM medal of distinction! This is our second highest award for outstanding service on the intellectual battleground.[hr]  * 205820 people have completed this activity to date.
      * You suffered 1 direct hit and bit 2 bullets.
      * This compares with the average player of this activity to date who takes 1.39 hits and bites 1.12 bullets.
      * 45.96% of the people who have completed this activity, like you, took very little damage and were awarded the TPM Medal of Distinction.
      * 7.35% of the people who have completed this activity emerged unscathed with the TPM Medal of Honour.

    Oh yea…finally somebody tells me that my beliefs are not totally screwed up [man I hate the Bible Belt]

  16. Very interesting little test, Brock!  Thanks for the link.

    For those who are keeping score:

    You took zero direct hits and you bit 1 bullets. The average player of this activity to date takes 1.39 hits and bites 1.12 bullet. 205821 people have so far undertaken this activity.

    The bullet I bit was on the “god being able to make a square circle or 1 + 1 = 72” question.

    While I certainly do understand their reasoning on why I bit a bullet, I kind of think that that was my whole point!  (Those of you who bit the bullet on this one probably know what I’m talking about.)  God or gods are an irrational, nonsensical concept, by definition!  (See the Raving Atheist’s Basic Assumptions.)  So I don’t see a conflict (in my mind at least) in believing that the concept of a god includes being able to do irrational, nonsensical things.

    And yeah, Golix, How the Mind Works is a winner!


    Joe P Guy

  17. You’re welcome guys and thanks for taking it and revealing your results. Together we can change the percentages and build a rational world where a god is unnecessary, redundant even.

    Now go to the “What’s Bush Thinking” thread and put more ridiculous thoughts in Bush’s head. Maybe then his advisers can take a day or two off.

  18. That was a fun test but it leaves me with questions. I am a bible reading,God and miracle believing,tongue speaking, praying fool but I got through the test with 1 direct hit and two bites of bullet. I guess I’m still waiting for all the evidence to come in. As much as we do know and have concrete evidence for is it possible that there is still alot we don’t have access to? How long was the world flat anyway? As far as questions on evolution vs. creationism I don’t see why they have to be exclusive of each other.

  19. Evolution and literal interpretations of the Bible are exclusive because the Bible says that all life-forms have always been the same.  Obvious evolution disagrees, saying that life-forms have changed over million of years.

    Of course, some don’t take the Bible literally all the time.  Then there’s Theist Evolution, where God controls evolution.

  20. unbundling the binding problem

    There are a number of unwarranted assumptions underlying the discussion of the so-called “binding problem”, and an overall flavour of circularity in the discussion. Not to mention the strong possibility that the innate treachery of language may be contributing to the creation of a non-issue re this issue.

    Consider, for example, the Revonsuo and Newman (1999)* definition: The binding problem is “…the problem of how the unity of conscious perception is brought about by the distributed activities of the central nervous system.”

    There is still no good theory of consciousness: what it is, where it lives, whether it is in fact unified, etc. And there is still no good theory of “personal selfhood”: what it is, where it lives, whether it is one or many, where the boundary of the self is, etc.

    There is no “central meaner” to mangle Daniel Dennett. There is no homunculus in the control room inside your skull behind your eyes. There is no control room, there is no ONE in control. Consciousness emerges when a certain level of complexity is reached—it is not susceptible to reductionist analysis.

    There is no unity of conscious perception. So how could there be a problem with it?

    I’m not really clear where I’m going with this, to be honest. I may be confusing or confuting the whole with its parts. But that in turn raises more questions about the gestalt, and how fine- or coarse-grained it can be.

    The Binding Problem is called a problem because we don’t know how the unity of conscious perception happens. So it’s a problem for us because we don’t understand it. My view is that not only do we not know how “it” happens, but we do not know what “it” is, why it is, or even whether it happens at all.

    So the opportunity is to focus less sharply on the “how” and more sharply on the “what”, the “why” and the “whether”. Less on the parts, and more on the whole. And in so doing, maybe we will discover and come to understand a great deal more than we bargained for, or even suspected was out there to be understood.

    For instance, maybe we will discover a quantum theory of consciousness. (And no, I don’t think it has anything to do with microtubules or morphic resonance). Maybe we will discover that observers can and do create realities in a much more substantial, divine, really real way than could ever be encompassed in the trivial speculations of new age spirituality. Maybe we will find a truth much bigger than the wildest dreams of the Deepak Chopras and James Redfields and their like.

    Maybe. But then again, maybe not. What do you think?

    * Revonsuo, A and Newman, J. (1999). Binding and Consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition 8, 123-127.

    Copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.
    portal to the multiverse
    wicked and sick
    manic memes
    pathetic poetry
    mumbo jumbo
    very short stories

  21. Inretestnig fcat aoubt the hmuan bairn.

    As lnog as the fisrt and lsat ltteres are crrceot, and all leettrs are psenret, it is uusaly pssbliole to raed a stcnaee, no maettr how jmblued.

    Which is why when I am typing at 2 in the morning it is possible that I mis-spell things, such as (hypothetically) my sig.  Not that I am admitting that.

  22. LOL.
    Last night over at Spocko’s I saw the article about the jumbled words (listed at Jun 9, 2:14pm); I copied and pasted it and sent it to my email list … and now it’s mentioned here.
    I love ‘coincidences’.

  23. I think a lot of people confuse “concurrent” with “unified”.  The brain is a concurrent processor but that doesn’t make it unified per se. We can in fact perceive multiple channels concurrently. There is no mystery in that. The brain is a living community. There is a place in the brain where personality is processed, another place where stories are told. And another place where listening takes place. These are concurrent activities. And another where emotions are felt. ure they do interact with eachother in a vibrant commerce, its what the organism needs to do. But concurrency is not unity. Its just concurrency. There is a kind of unity in all the integration and cross connection. But its a pastiche really. Take away your hearing. The “quality” of your “consciousness” is diminished by exactly that much. OK, now remove your sight. Lets take away your sense of balance. etc. etc. The “unity” of these sensations is just the reality of their existence concurrently. Its not even a pack of cards, you can remove all kinds of parts of it and the rest survives to some degree, its just that the overall performance is badly degraded.
    The unity story is a language myth. Stroke victims don’t have such a total of things working properly, but there is no mystery to that.  In fact, now that brain scanning is possible, we DO know now what parts of the brain are responsible for all of the various aspects of being human. The ability to direct the attention of the brain for example, has a specific area devoted to that function.  Claiming a unity is easy when you have all the parts working, but its only a claim. There is no single “act of magic” that allows you to enjoy all the privileges of a fully functioning human brain.

  24. Having said all that, there is still room for quantum engineering QE to be manifestly involved in the brain. Although I agree, most of the proposals are dubious. That is a fun area for speculation whilst it waits for the empirical science to catch up. QE is in its infancy, we don’t really know what we can build in the lab yet. I have been thinking about membranes for example. If you anchor a long molecule at one end (like a lipid) and let the other ends go free, then you must have some kind of
    uncertainty gradient from the wall where the fatty lipid is crystalline, out to the center of the membrane where the lipids are effectively molten. That has to be a novel state of matter, so can it support a soliton band? See I can make this into a whole theory of mind. LOL. I am no physicist but it is cheap to come up with all kinds of wild theories.

  25. you can explain this whole illusion with response bias. Although what they hypothesise is happening is more than ikely true ( as seen with the blind spot in vision) this illusion is confounded by the fact that you can’t seperate out repsonse bias that is created by the central dots.

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