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I was trained as a scientist. I believe in science. I believe that doing laboratory experiments about how we perceive, learn, decide, and solve problems has merit and applicability to the real world. One of the things I studied in the laboratory was perceptual adaptation. So, I had first-hand experience conducting experiments on perceptual adaptation. Please keep that in mind as you read this short story. 

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Many years ago, I drove to IBM Research five days of the week. It was a beautiful drive among Westchester reservoirs and at one point, my journey took me through an “erector set bridge” — you know the kind — they literally look to be made from a giant erector set. At the time, I was driving a sky blue Chevy with only an AM radio for entertainment. I typically listened to Imus in the morning on the way into work each day. AM radio being what it is, and steel erector set bridges being what they are, each time I drove through the metal bridge, the sound volume went down quite noticeably until I emerged on the other side. I did this for years. 

At some point, I decided I would treat myself to an entertainment upgrade. I had never bought anything like this and I was somewhat nervous that I might be “taken” or that the installation would be shoddy. 

I had a tape deck and AM/FM radio installed as well as stereo speakers. To me, it seemed marginally too luxurious, but I was really looking forward to some higher quality music and listening to books on tape. (I didn’t even know about NPR or WBAI at that point). I felt quite happy and contented as I drove to work that first day with my new tape deck. I had it playing some of my favorite and most spirited music. A perfect way to begin the workweek! 

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All at once, the sound volume went way up! And, then, a few moments later, it went back down again. My first thought was along these lines: “Damn! There must be a loose wire in the thing. Crap, now I’ve got to spend hours trying to straighten this out and argue about the bill. Yech. 

Wait a minute! That was the bridge! I just perceived the sound to be louder because I so strongly expected it to be softer!

OK. But why the delay? Why didn’t it immediately occur to me as my first explanation? I knew that I was using my ear brain system to perceive the sound. I knew that expectation impacts experience. I knew I had spent years driving through the bridge and having the sound level go down. I believe in science, I participated in the visual analogue of such a phenomenon myself. 

One explanation is age of learning. I learned about how people think and solve problems from watching my own family interact and listening to radio. Later, that was supplemented by watching television, and to a lesser extent movies. I had at least a decade of indoctrination of “finding who is at fault” and “if I perceive it, it must be true!” Before I ever heard of the “scientific method.” 

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Is it possible that those thought-patterns still influenced my initial takes on how to solve a problem? Is it feasible that they do not? In the instance related above, my “scientific and professional training” did come into play and overcome my initial impression. Indeed, the second hypothesis leap-frogged way ahead of the “loose wire” theory as the most plausible explanation.

Note too that not only did the “loose wire” theory initially come to the fore; it was embellished with a guilty party! Even if there were a loose wire, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the person who installed it had done a bad job. 

I had a job for awhile as a projectionist, and I did make a few mistakes. But it also happened more than once that I was “blamed” for a film breaking when the real reason was not bad threading but the fact that the film had been spliced a hundred times! Or, I would be given a  rotary slide tray by the lecturer and one of the slides would be out of order. That’s my fault? Was I supposed to get an advanced copy of the presentation and critique it? No-one mentioned that as part of the job description. But there it is: the tendency to blame someone who may or may not be actually to blame. I have been on the receiving end. I suspect everyone has. Yet, my mind jumped to the same nonsense. 

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Even if you’ve never been trained in science, you’ve almost undoubtedly had many experiences that show that your perceptions of reality are not necessarily reality. You’ve likely jumped to conclusions and later found out you were wrong. A good way to remind us all of this is based on Native American wisdom called “The Iroquois Rule of Six.” 

In the case of the little vignette I shared above, I was driving to work. It took place before the invention of “smart phones” so even if I had been tempted to pull over and give that stereo installer a “piece of my mind” I had no feasible way to do it. 

Thank goodness. 


The Iroquois Rule of Six

The Invisibility Cloak of Habit

To Be or Not to Be

I Can’t be Bothered

Essays on America: Wednesday

Essays on America: What about the butter dish?

Essays on America: The Update Problem