Sue Blackmore: Mysteries of Seeing

We open our eyes and there is the world! And our natural response is to jump to the conclusion that seeing is easy. There seems to be a conscious ‘me’ inside my head who is looking out through my eyes at a world outside. The trouble is—this impossibly dualist conception would entail a little homunculus inside who in turn has eyes and a brain to see with, and so on to an infinite regress. So we have to throw out that idea.

But there is worse to come. Even if we think we can get rid of the separate observer, we are still tempted to think that the brain must build a picture inside the head that corresponds to the vivid picture we see in front of us. Yet this too has to be false. Research reveals that when it comes to conscious vision, we cannot be seeing what we think we are seeing, and we must be deeply deluded about how our perception works.

With demonstrations and help from the audience I shall explore some of the ways in which we misunderstand our own minds. Multiple images show that we can see something that we have not even looked at. The phenomenon of change blindness shows that the richness of our visual world must be an illusion: we think we see a rich and vivid image of the world around us but our visual system never constructs anything like such a picture, and never pulls together all the things we believe we can see all at once. Demonstrations of inattentional blindness show that we can look right at something and not see it at all. Vision cannot be what it seems to be. So what is it and how does it fool us so?

SUE BLACKMORE is a psychologist and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She blogs for the Guardian, and often appears on radio and television. The Meme Machine (1999) has been translated into 16 other languages; more recent books include Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011), and a textbook
Consciousness: An Introduction (2nd ed. 2010).