We are so completely dependent on our five senses every moment of the day that we totally forget how full of shit they can be. Your reality is cobbled together from a bunch of different parts of your brain working in conjunction, and often it's like a bickering conference room full of uncooperative co-workers. In fact, we're pretty sure the thing your brain does best is convince you that it works.
But it doesn't take much to spot the bizarre little flaws in your gray matter. For example ...
When you hear someone talk, the whole process is pretty straightforward, right? The sound comes out of the other person's mouth, it travels into your ears, and voila! -- you just heard what they said. Congratulations. If your hearing works fine, what could possibly go wrong?
Short answer: your eyes. They can butt in and mess everything up. You see, vision is the most dominant sense in humans, and that means that what your eyes are seeing will sometimes override what your ears are hearing. If you want to experience this right now, check out this video:
In the clip, you see (and hear) a guy saying "bah bah bah" over and over. Afterward, he changes his tune to "fah fah fah" ... or so your eyes would have you believe. In reality, the audio never changed, only the picture did. That is, the voice is still saying "bah," but since it's now dubbed over a picture of the same guy pronouncing "fah," your brain actually changes what you're hearing so that it doesn't conflict with what you're seeing. If you close your eyes or look away, "fah" automatically goes back to being "bah."
Your brain also gave the "fah" version a tan, for unknown reasons.
This illusion is called the McGurk effect, and the creepiest part is that, even knowing know full well what's going on, you can't get your ears to hear the correct sound. Scientists who have been studying this shit for decades are still fooled.
The McGurk effect tends to be minimized when you're interacting with familiar faces, but it gets worse if you're dealing with strangers. Things like the way the person is dressed or even what they're carrying can influence the words you think you hear them say. For instance, in one study, people confused the phrase "He's got your boot" with "He's gonna shoot" when viewing a staged video of a man chasing after a woman. This proved that you're more likely to hear (or believe you hear) someone say the word "boot" if they're carrying a boot, and you're more likely to hear (or believe you hear) someone say the word "shoot" if they're carrying a gun.
It's still not advisable to wave footwear threateningly at police officers.
But it's just "boot" for "shoot" -- who could possibly be affected by such a small misunderstanding? Other than, you know, people being tried for murder.
So basically, think of all your senses as the "yes men" to the CEO that is your eyes. Even when your ears are pretty sure your eyes are wrong, they're too timid to protest and will just go along with whatever your eyes dictate.
But that's not the only time your eyes screw you over ...
We've all seen optical illusions in school ("Do you see a vase, or a pair of nude, fat men with engorged penises facing each other?"), but those are just little quirks in how your brain processes visual data -- it's not like your brain can just say screw it and decide to, say, erase the taillight of a car driving next to you on a dark highway at night.
Wait, no. It can totally do that. Don't believe us? Then stare at the flashing green dot in the middle of the figure below for about 10 seconds:
Or, to fully recreate that 'road-trip feel', stare at it for nine hours while shotgunning coffee and slapping yourself awake.
Notice the yellow dots on the side? No, you don't, because after a few seconds of staring, they'll begin to blink in and out. They may even disappear for several seconds at a time -- you'll know that the dots are still there, but your eyes will simply stop seeing them. OK, now imagine the green dot is actually the road you've been staring at for an hour, and the disappearing yellow ones are other cars. How many times have you heard phrases like "It came out of nowhere!" or "I never saw it coming!" from people involved in car accidents? Well, there you go.
So what the hell, brain? Why would this even be a thing that you do, you dick? Well, we're not really sure. Scientists call this phenomenon motion-induced blindness, and they believe it's the result of your brain discarding information it thinks is unimportant. Since the world is constantly bombarding you with stimuli (sights, sounds, smells, oncoming trucks), your brain would simply get overwhelmed if it had to process everything. So, it learns to weed out the worthless stuff. That's why the random people walking down the street around you will barely register in your mind.
Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
"See? I told you it wasn't my massive superiority complex!"
The problem is, your brain doesn't always make the right call. In the illusion above, it decides that the blue crosses are important because they're moving, and ignores the yellow dots because they stay in the same place -- but what if you're in a situation where something only looks stationary because you're both in motion? And as monotonous as a highway can get, it's even worse if you're piloting an aircraft thousands of miles above the ground, where it's just you and the clouds. This is exactly why pilots are taught to constantly scan the horizon and told not to stare at anything for more than a couple of seconds when they're in the cockpit. That, and wing-dwelling gremlins.
Unless you have some type of brain disorder or are currently tripping balls on LSD, you probably don't worry too much about questions like "How do colors taste?" and "How do flavors look?" Well, maybe you should. As impossible as it sounds, your eyes even have the power of determining how stuff tastes to you ... and we don't just mean that you get hungrier for food that "looks" appetizing. It's much stranger than that.
For instance, if you know anything about wine, you're aware of how different experts consider red and white wine to be -- they're served in different glasses, paired with totally different foods, and kept at different temperatures. Well, in one study, food scientists gathered the members of a London wine club and asked them to describe the flavor of a glass of white wine. At first, they came up with flavors normally associated with that type of wine, like banana, passion fruit, and bell pepper. However, when the scientists took the same wine and colored it red, the tasters suddenly reported flavors associated with red wine. Again, it was the exact same thing they'd just tasted, only with a different color.
This may be closely related to the fact that wine tasters are full of crap.
But maybe that particular wine club sucked, or was actually full of drunks? Nope, the same experiment has been repeated several times, always with wine experts, and always with the same hilarious results. One time, the victims were oenology students at a French university -- they literally studied wine all day, and they were still fooled by a simple change of color. Another time, one of Spain's foremost wine tasters took his time to describe the flavor of a glass of white wine dyed red ... but only because he was trying to decide which particular red-berry fruit best defined it.
Pretentious wine drinkers aren't the only ones fooled by this effect. We've mentioned before that the color of a glass can affect how hot or cold we perceive the liquid inside to be. Well, in another study, people rated hot chocolate as having a more "chocolaty" flavor when served in an orange or cream-colored cup. And this goes for food, too: People rated strawberry mousse as tasting sweeter if it was served on a white plate versus a black plate.
Unfortunately, you're still a terrible cook, regardless of plate color.
That's how much pull your sense of vision has inside your brain: It's able to just shove your sense of taste aside and say, "Nope, that's not vagrant piss, that's tasty lemonade." OK, no one's actually tried that in a study. Yet.