Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

Daniel Piza of Brazil’s national newspaper, Estadão, listed my book, The Vision Revolution, among the top books of 2010. Lots of great company there, including Derek Bickerton, Richard Wrangham, and Michael Tomasello.


Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books). He is working on his fourth book at the moment, tentatively titled Making Faces, about emotions and facial expressions.



Read Full Post »

Other people have an accent, but not me. And this is not just because I have no accent. I wouldn’t have an accent even if I had one!

Accent is a strange thing (as is my reasoning style). No matter the accent you get stuck with – southern, New Yorker, or my valley girl rendition – you feel as if it is the other accents that sound accented to you. Your own accent sounds, well, unaccented, like vanilla, corn flakes, or white bread. Arguments about which person “has an accent” don’t tend to be productive; just a lot of pointing and reiterating the pearl, “No, you’re the one with the accent.”

And it is not just accent where we find ourselves behaving badly. We do the same for skin color. Most people feel that their own skin color is fairly uncolorful, and difficult to accurately name. Why are our perceptual systems like this? Here’s what I said about this in The Vision Revolution.

    “Why would we evolve to perceive our own skin color as uncategorizable and uncolored? How could this be a useful thing? Consider an object with a color that is highly categorizable—say an orange. If I place 100 oranges in front of you, there will actually be some variation in their colors, but you won’t pay much attention to these differences. You will subconsciously lump together all the different hues into the same category: “orange.” Ignoring differences is a central feature of categorization. To categorize is to stereotype. When a color is uncategorizable, however, the opposite of stereotyping occurs. Rather than lumping together all the different colors, you appreciate all the little differences. Because our skin color cannot be categorized, we are better able to see very minor deviations in skin color, and therefore register minor changes in others’ skin color as they occur.”

Unfortunately, this fine discrimination around one’s own skin color (or accent, or the taste of your own saliva, for that matter) has an unintended consequence: it can lead to racism.

Race and skin color.

Could racism really be a side effect of highly efficient perceptual mechanisms? I’m afraid so. Here’s an excerpt from The Vision Revolution where I discuss why…

    If our skin color is so uncolored, why do we use color terms so often to refer to race? Races may not literally be white, black, brown, red or yellow, but people do perceive other races to be colored in the general direction of these fundamental colors, which is why color terms are used at all. So, what is all this nonsense about uncolored skin?
    To answer this, one must remember that it is only one’s own skin that appears uncolored. I perceive my saliva as tasteless, but I might taste a sample of some of yours. I don’t smell my nose, but I might be able to smell yours. Similarly, my own skin may appear uncolored to me, but a consequence of being designed to perceive the changes around baseline is that even fairly small deviations from baseline are perceived as qualitatively colored, just as a 100 degree temperature is perceived as hot. An alien coming to visit us would find it utterly perplexing that a white person perceives a black person’s skin to be so different from his own, and vice versa. Their spectra are practically identical (see Figure 3). But then again, this alien would be surprised to learn that you perceive 100 degree skin as hot, even though 98.6 degrees and 100 degrees are practically the same.
    Therefore, the fact that languages tend to use color terms to refer to other races is not at all mysterious. It is consistent with what would be expected if our color vision is designed for seeing color changes around baseline skin color. Whereas your baseline skin color is uncategorizable and appears uncolored, skin colors deviating even a little from baseline appear categorizably colorey.
    Skin color is probably a lot like accents. Rather than asking about the color of your skin, let’s now ask, What is the accent of your own voice? The answer is that you perceive it to have no accent. But you perceive people coming from other regions or countries to have an accent. Of course, they believe that you are the one with the accent, not them. This is because we are designed to ably discriminate the voices of people in our lives who have the same accent (or non-accent) as ourselves. We need to discriminate between different people’s voices, and we also need to discriminate the inflections in the voice of a single individual. A consequence of this is that our own voice and those typical of our community are perceived as non-accented, and even fairly small deviations away from this baseline accent are perceived as categorizably accented (e.g., country, urban, Boston, New York, English, Irish, German and Latino accents). Because of this, people find it difficult to recognize people by voice when they have an accent. People also find it more difficult to discriminate the tone or emotional inflections of the speaker when the speaker has an accent.
    In talking about your perception of your own skin color earlier, for simplicity I was implicitly assuming that the community you have grown up around shares approximately the same skin color. For most of our evolutionary history this was certainly the case. And even today most people are raised and live among individuals largely sharing their own skin color, but by no means always. If you are an ethnic minority in your community, your skin color may differ from the average skin color around you, and your baseline skin color may well end up to be different from your own. If this were the case, then you may in principle perceive your own skin to be colored. For example, if you are of African descent but living in the U.S., then because the baseline skin color of the U.S. leans toward that of Caucasians, you may perceive your own skin to be color-ey. Similarly, if someone with a Southern accent moves to New York City, he may begin to notice his own accent because the baseline accent of his community has changed (but his accent may not much change).

    One implication of all this is that our perception of the skin color of various races is illusory, and these illusions are potentially one factor underlying racism. In fact, it leads to at least three distinct (but related) illusions of racial skin color. To understand these three illusions, it is helpful to consider these illusions in the context of perceived temperature.

    First, as noted earlier, we perceive 98.6 degrees to be neither warm nor cold, yet we perceive 100 degrees as hot. That is, we perceive one temperature to have no perceptual quality of warmth/cold, whereas we perceive the other temperature to categorically possess a temperature (namely hot). This is an illusion because there is nothing in the physics of temperature that underlies this perceived qualitative difference between these two temperatures. For skin there is an analogous illusion, namely the perception we have that one’s own skin is uncolorful but that the skin of other races is colored. This is an illusion because there is no objective sense in which your skin is uncolorful but that of others is colorful. (Similarly, there is no objective truth underlying the perception that one’s own voice is not accented but that foreign voices are.)

    A second consequent illusion is illustrated by the fact that we perceive 98.6 degrees as very different from 100 degrees, even though they are objectively not very different. This is closely related to the first illusion, but differs because whereas the first concerns the absence versus the presence of a perceived categorical quality, this illusion concerns the perceived difference in the two cases. The analogous illusion for skin is the perception that your own skin is very different from that of some other races. This is an illusion because the spectra underlying skin colors of different races are actually very similar.

    And third, we perceive 102 degrees and 104 degrees as very similar in temperature, despite their objective difference being greater than the difference between 98.6 degrees and 100 degrees, the latter which we perceive as very different. For skin colors, we lump together the skin colors of some other races as similar to one another, even though in some cases their colors may differ as much as your own color does from either of them. For example, while people of African descent distinguish between many varieties of African skin, Caucasians tend to lump them all together as “black” skin. (And for the perception of voice, many Americans confuse Australian accents with English ones, two accents which are probably just as objectively different as American is to English.)

    As a whole, these illusions lead to the false impression that other races are qualitatively very different from ourselves, and that other races are homogeneous compared to our own. It is, then, no wonder that we humans have a tendency to stereotype other races: we suffer from perceptual illusions that encourage this. But by recognizing that we suffer from these illusions, we can more ably counter them.

How much of the human tendency toward racism is explained by these perceptual mechanisms? I don’t know, but I would not underestimate the power of such illusions, for they fundamentally affect – or color – how we see the world and the people in it.

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This research on the evolution of color – and other work of his on the origins or writing, illusions and stereo vision – are the topic of his new book, The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

Read Full Post »

By Mark Changizi   

As a young man I enjoyed listening to a particular series of French instructional programs. I didn’t understand a word, but was nevertheless enthralled. Was it because the sounds of human speech are thrilling? Not really. Speech sounds alone, stripped of their meaning, don’t inspire. We don’t wake up to alarm clocks blaring German speech. We don’t drive to work listening to native spoken Eskimo, and then switch it to the Bushmen Click station during the commercials. Speech sounds don’t give us the chills, and they don’t make us cry – not even French.


But music does emanate from our alarm clocks in the morning, and fill our cars, and give us chills, and make us cry. According to a recent paper by Nidhya Logeswaran and Joydeep Bhattacharya from the University of London, music even affects how we see visual images. In the experiment, 30 subjects were presented with a series of happy or sad musical excerpts. After listening to the snippets, the subjects were shown a photograph of a face. Some people were shown a happy face – the person was smiling – while others were exposed to a sad or neutral facial expression. The participants were then asked to rate the emotional content of the face on a 7-point scale, where 1 mean extremely sad and 7 extremely happy. 

The researchers found that music powerfully influenced the emotional ratings of the faces. Happy music made happy faces seem even happier while sad music exaggerated the melancholy of a frown.  A similar effect was also observed with neutral faces. The simple moral is that the emotions of music are “cross-modal,” and can easily spread from sensory system to another. Now I never sit down to my wife’s meals without first putting on a jolly Sousa march.

Although it probably seems obvious that music can evoke emotions, it is to this day not clear why. Why doesn’t music feel like listening to speech sounds, or animal calls, or garbage disposals? Why is music nice to listen to? Why does music get blessed with a multi-billion dollar industry, whereas there is no market for “easy listening” speech sounds?

In an effort to answer, let’s first ask why I was listening to French instructional programs in the first place. The truth is, I wasn’t just listening. I was watching them on public television. What kept my attention was not the meaningless-to-me speech sounds (I was a slow learner), but the young French actress. Her hair, her smile, her mannerisms, her pout… I digress. The show was a pleasure to watch because of the humans it showed, especially the exhibited expressions and behaviors.

The lion share of emotionally evocative stimuli in the lives of our ancestors would have been from the faces and bodies of other people, and if one finds human artifacts that are highly evocative, it is a good hunch that it looks or sounds human in some way.

…continue reading at Scientific American

Mark Changizi is Professor of Cognitive Science at RPI, the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella, 2009) and The Brain from 25,000 Feet (Kluwer, 2003).

Read Full Post »

Male anglerfish are born with an innate desire to not exist. As soon as a male reaches maturity, he acquires an urge to find a female, sink his teeth into her, and grow into her. This evolved because anglerfish live in the dark ocean abyss with few mating opportunities. By giving up his life to be part of the female, the male can reproduce more often. It’s not clear he can appreciate all the sex he’s getting, however, because much of his body and brain atrophies and fuses with her body. Nevertheless, that’s where male anglerfish want to be – that’s a full male anglerfish life. And you thought you had problems. At least you’re not partially absorbed in someone else’s abdomen. Let’s toast our fortune: We are not male anglerfish!

See http://powerfodder.tumblr.com/post/292745035/will-carey-anglerfish-changizi-community

Creative community of anglerfish trying to absorb you. (Will Carey)

Or are we? Although we have no innate drive to stick our heads into the sides of other people, we do have a drive to stick our heads into groups of people – into communities, tribes, villages and clubs. We’re social primates, and a full human life is centered on the communities we’re in, and our place within them. There aren’t many hermits, and most that are probably wish they weren’t. Communities of people have bulls-eyes on them that are irresistible to us humans. Although communities are necessary for a full life – e.g., family, bowling league, and civil war reenactment society – there are some communities that are especially damaging to one’s creative health. Creative communities – they are the creativity killers. For scientists, for example, their female anglerfish is the community of scientists, a community which is creative as a whole, but which tends to snuff out the creativity of individuals within it. Not only are these creative communities dangerous to one’s creativity, but they seductively attract creativity-seeking individuals into them like moths to a creativity-scorching flame.

That creative communities are alluring to the aspiring creativity maven is not surprising: we all want friends who understand what we do and appreciate our accomplishments. What is surprising, and is not widely recognized, is the extent to which these creative communities are destructive. The problem for the male anglerfish is that his entire world becomes shrunken down, from a three-dimensional world of objects and adventures to a zero-dimensional world of gamete-release. The problem for us is that we’re equipped with a brain that, upon being placed within a community, reacts by severely shrinking its view of the world. Once the psychological transformation has completed, one’s view of the world has become so radically constricted that one cannot see the world beyond the community.

The source of this shrinkage is something called “adaptation,” or “habituation.” When you walk from a bright sunny street to a dimly lit pub, the pub initially feels entirely dark inside. After a while, however, your eyes habituate to the low light level, and you see it as highly varied in light level: it looks dark inside that mouse-hole in the wall, bright where the uncovered light bulb is, and, scattered around the room, you see dozens of other light-levels spanning the dark-light range. This is clearly advantageous for you, because you effectively began as blind in the pub, and minutes later could see. In order to make it happen, though, you underwent a kind of “world shrinkage,” in particular a kind of “luminance shrinkage,” where luminance refers to the amount of light coming toward your eye from different directions around you. When you first entered the pub, all the differing luminance levels in the pub were treated by your visual system as pretty much the same, namely “very very dark”; at that point in time your eyes were habituated to the wide world of luminances found on a sunny day outside. The “sunny” world of luminances differs in two respects from the “pub” world of luminances. First, the average luminance in sunny world is much higher than that in pub world. Second, and more important for our purposes here, sunny world has a much wider range of luminances than in pub world – from the high luminance of a sun-reflecting car windshield to the low luminance of the gaps in a sewer grating. Our eyes have the ability not only to adapt to new light levels (e.g., high versus low), but also to new levels of variability (e.g., wide versus narrow). When you habituate from sunny world to pub world, your eyes and visual system treat the tiny range of luminance levels found in pub world as if they are just as wide as the range of luminances found in sunny world. Your entire perceptual space for brightness has shrunk down to apply to what is a miniscule world in terms of luminance. This kind of world shrinkage is one of the many engineering features that make mammals like us so effective. All our senses are built with these adaptation mechanisms at work, and not just for simple features like luminance or color, but also complex images like faces.

In fact, our heads are teeming with world-shrinking mechanisms that go far beyond our senses, invading the way we think and reason. When we enter a creative community, varieties of adaptation mechanisms are automatically elicited inside us, helping to illuminate the intellectual world inside the community. Ideas within the community that were impossible for us to distinguish become stark oppositions. Similar mechanisms are played out for our social world – the hierarchies we care to climb, and the people we care to impress. At first we don’t appreciate the status differences within the hierarchy, even if we abstractly know them; but eventually we come to “feel” the gulf between each tier. While having these mechanisms is fundamental to our success in tribes, and was thus selected for, our creative integrity was not on the evolutionary ledger. Creative communities are dank pubs, and once we’ve optimized ourselves to living on the inside, our full range of reasoning is brought to bear on a narrow spectrum of ideas, a spectrum that we’re under the illusion is as wide as it can be. And so we don’t realize the world has shrunk at all.

Mark Changizi is Professor of Cognitive Science at RPI, the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella, 2009) and The Brain from 25,000 Feet (Kluwer, 2003), and is aloof.

[A nice story somewhat related to this in ScienceDaily.]

Read Full Post »