Help me articulate the concept of how unfamiliarity and familiarity alter perception.
November 15, 2009 4:11 PM   Subscribe

Help me articulate the concept of how unfamiliarity and familiarity alter perception.

I remember when I was about six years old, sitting in a coffee shop in the town where I grew up, and thinking that it looked different from the way it looked the first time I went there. The thing is, at that moment I was able to alter my perception and look at it through new eyes; see it as if I had never seen it before. I remember my surroundings almost physically changing, spatially and conceptually.

I try to do that now, and it's much more difficult. This is something I've always thought about, and had trouble articulating, and I wonder if there is some kind of theory or philosophy of one's visual and conceptual perception of people, places, things, and even ideas being altered by one's level of familiarity, and more so, of the fact that one can't (or maybe one can, sometimes, or some people can) change one's perception from the familiar to unfamiliar.

I would appreciate any links, or books, or ideas, or people that might have anything to do with this.

posted by DeltaForce to Human Relations (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should check out lists of cognitive biases.

Memory biases in particular.
posted by Eleutherios at 4:37 PM on November 15, 2009

Sounds something like jamais vu, a cousin to "deja vu".
posted by losvedir at 4:46 PM on November 15, 2009

You know, this isn't exactly what you're shooting for, but you made me think of this.

If you show an American red, pink, blue, and light blue cards and ask them to make three groups, most Americans will group red, pink, and blue.

If you show the same cards to a Russian, they will group red, blue, and light blue. Russian has a word for light blue (basically cyan) that is more commonly used than a word for pink. So their language predisposes them to see color difference slightly differently.

Another example that comes to mind are those magic eye pictures, which you can "see" differently depending on how you focus your eyes.

Are either of those on target at all?
posted by jefficator at 4:47 PM on November 15, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, very interesting so far.

@jefficator, yes, those are two examples that I think express the idea very nicely.
posted by DeltaForce at 4:51 PM on November 15, 2009

In the design world (and it's been borrowed by some technology-minded folks), this is called Defamiliarization. Viktor Shklovsky coined the term for this artistic move, and I usually define it as "making strange." Here's a great paper on the topic of defamiliarization and applying it to technology and domestic life (by Bell, Blythe, and Sengers). It's a classic of the literature in my field, but I also think that it's pretty readable and even (gasp!) useful.
posted by zpousman at 5:10 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Another term that might push forward your research into this topic comes from philosophy: Qualia. I'll let mefi painquale weigh in on this, but basically quale (plural of qualia) are the actual senses that are inside minds as they experience things. Mr. Pain does not believe they exist, but, uh, opinions differ. An appeal to quale is how (some) philosophers explain the difference in the colors that jefficator mentions. The wavelengths of light hitting two different individual's retinas is very likely the same, but the quale are not.

My favorite example from philosophy class on this topic: Have you ever had the experience of drinking something that you expected to be something (juice, milk, coffee, etc.) but were instead presented with a different beverage? If you get a big gulp of water or cola, and your brain is expecting orange juice, there is a moment of sensory confusion / perceptual confusion. This is, a professor argued, the *real* taste of cola. Not the expected taste that's been culturally embedded in you by billions of dollars of Asa Candler's money.
posted by zpousman at 5:19 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Forgot to paste the link about (color) sense qualia: Colors, Subjective Reactions, and Qualia by Shoemaker. I'll stop thread-jacking your thread now.
posted by zpousman at 5:21 PM on November 15, 2009

Think about words.

You cannot look at a word (in English) without reading it, nor can you hear a word (clearly) without understanding it. The processes are so automatic that you cannot consciously override them.

The Stroop test is designed to exploit this kind of phenomena. The theory is that certain processes in your brain are so automatic that it takes considerable effort and attention to suppress them.

Presumably, it takes time for a given mental circuit to become ingrained. If this is true, a child would have less difficulty looking at something in a new or unfamiliar light.

I think in some cases that desensitization can help. Note that if you say a word over and over to yourself, it starts to sound weird and unfamiliar.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:31 PM on November 15, 2009

Response by poster: Ah, this is exactly what I was looking for. And @dephlogisticated, I've definitely found that to be true about words, in reverse as well. I still have issues with the not-word "quicklier" because I once said it so many times that it started to sound correct to me. It still does.
posted by DeltaForce at 5:42 PM on November 15, 2009

To piggyback on zpousman, I would also encourage you to explore the philosophical literature on the subject - and the qualia discussion is only the tip of the iceberg here. In fact, familiarity is only one small factor that shapes how we perceive the alleged outside world. There is tons of research - philosophy, cognitive science, psychology - on what perception is, exactly, and how it works. Your question really does get at some of the deepest questions of existence. Christopher Peacock has written quite a bit on this, with varying success, and if you look through some of the bibliographies of his papers you can get a really good overview of the depth and breadth of the literature. I would perhaps start with "Explaining Perceptual Entitlement."

Like I said before, there is a lot of literature on this that spans Plato to Kant to David Lewis. Of particular historical importance, IMO, are Schopenhauer's On Vision and Color and Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:52 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is an incredibly rich literature in research psychology on phenomena related to what you're thinking. Most of it stems from the fact that our brains are optimized to develop shortcuts for things we have seen and processed before, so we don't waste any more processing power on them than we need. Sometimes these shortcuts are a little too efficient, to the point that we are heavily cognitively biased toward novelty, and we tend to ignore or just fill in the blanks for things we think we are familiar with. That is why there is a huge bag of perceptual tricks that every professor or TA breaks out for Perception 101 students. Check out almost any intro psychology textbook or google "perceptual tricks" for a demonstration of these.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:13 PM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've also been interested in the phenomenon you describe, especially as it relates to familiar versus unfamiliar places - there's often a distinct kind of "freshness" about being somewhere for the first time, that you lose upon subsequent visits.

I think this is part of the reason I love travelling so much, as an aside.

Without having any particular theory or philosophy to back this up, I think it has a lot to do with seeing things initially without any context. Or, more correctly, with less context than on subsequent visits.

For example, with your coffeeshop: let's say there's a door at the back of the shop. Initially, you might notice it & register its existence, and wonder where it leads. It might go to some toilets, or to a courtyard, but for now it's a mystery.

Hanging around the coffee shop for a while, you might discover where the door leads, say, to the toilet.

Now, it's in your memory as the-door-that-leads-to-the-toilet, and next time you visit the coffeeshop, it's just part of your background knowledge, even without being consciously aware of it - over behind your left shoulder is the toilet door. A magazine rack is to the side of the counter. Buses go past every now & then.

These are all parts of the context, that gets filled in over time.

This extends even further, to not knowing where the street outside leads. You've only walked as far as the cafe, right? If you'd gone further, you'd know that there's a great big fucking golf course just around the bend, but for now you don't know that.

I see this as part of the same phenomenon, which is why there's always an extra tingle about wandering in unfamiliar cities, because you just have no preconceptions about what you'll come across; no expectations or foreknowledge of the familiar.

I believe that this relates back to how our brains piece together our surroundings, from a combination of a limited number of sensory perceptions, which are then padded out with our memories or expectations. I don't claim to have any expertise on this, but I think the process is like: you see a car, but you don't *perceive* the entire thing. You might perceive something moving, making an engine noise, about car sized, red, roughly shaped like an old Volvo, and your brain automatically "fills in" the blanks for you - the bits between the boundaries, the colour, and so on.

If you focused on it, you might perceive more of the Volvo, but for most of our perception, that automagic filling-in apparently takes up a greater part of what is going on in our heads than the direct sensory stimulus.

It could be that in new places, you focus more on the stimuli themselves, because you don't yet have enough of the background detail or context to fill the rest in.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:24 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Qualia -> Quality -> Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
posted by Truthiness at 8:34 PM on November 15, 2009

How about the Buddhist idea of "beginner's mind?"

Awesome post, BTW.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:54 PM on November 15, 2009

You can trigger dislocated perceptions of familar spaces by looking at them through a mirror.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:56 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

freya_lamb makes a good point. I'll do that occasionally in my house when I'm feeling icky about it. Helps me see things I don't normally see.

Another thing is actual physical perspective. I was just moving a dresser for my mom, and I barely recognized it as the dresser of my childhood. Because *that* dresser was huge and I could barely reach the top of it. *This* old thing was not even waist high...
posted by gjc at 6:01 AM on November 16, 2009

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