From Duck to Bottle
Detail from Alexandre Grégoire: Pourvoirie Auberge La Barrière, 2018 (Unsplash)
You are walking across a vast grass field on a misty morning when you suddenly spot a lake in the distance. As you get closer, you notice a lone duck swimming peacefully across it. But this image doesn’t last. After walking another ten yards, you realise your mistake—it isn’t a duck but a plastic bottle. Your perfectly smooth conscious image changes rather abruptly, flipping seamlessly from duck to bottle.
Conscious visual perception—what we are conscious of seeing—is typically explained by light bouncing off the various items around us and hitting our eye’s retina. The signal then travels to the back of our brain for visual processing and is fed forward through more complex areas until the brain can generate a perfectly coherent conscious image. A similar process takes place for other types of perception. But this raises a puzzle: if true, why is our conscious perception seemingly so perfect, lacking gaps even while we struggle to discern something?
This is one of many questions that has led some researchers to suspect that our conscious perception isn’t actually down to our brains processing what we experience with our senses. Instead, they suggest, we experience with our senses what our brain believes there to be; our brain helpfully fills in any gaps in perception. It is incredibly hard to prove this idea that what we see when we perceive the world is ultimately an internal projection.