Column: Seeing shouldn't always mean believing

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Old lager drinkers will remember an advertisement for Rainier Beer. I borrowed a term from that ad. I used, “I Seen ‘Em,” for a lecture I gave in Seattle years ago.

What we think we see isn’t what is actually out there. Magicians, quacks and the odd politician may use our imperfect senses to create pictures out of the clouds that exist in our minds. Whether you place your trust in God, scientific data, or both, our universe isn’t what it appears to be, not what falls on the back wall of your eyeballs.

In this article and the next, I’ll explain how a woman’s dress can change color in front of your eyes. I’ll show how scientists are sometimes easiest of all to fool, because we all have patterns in the way we solve problems. I performed that trick with an oversized beer bottle.

I’ll try to connect it all and explain a trick or two that may be used to pull your attention to a worthless drug, nostrum or expensive piece of medical machinery.

Our eyes are not cameras. If they were, they would be cheap ones, not the quality of an iPhone and not what is promoted as a retinal display.

Our eyes are like cameras, in the sense they take in energy from light waves. The film in your old camera had chemicals that responded to the color and intensity of rays that came through the lens. High resolution could be achieved by using finer grained materials that created exquisite details. Today, those grains are pixels.

The more little dots on a screen or on the pages of the newspaper you’re holding, the crisper the display. If you’re not acquainted with the concept, find a high magnification lens and look at my picture at the top of this column. I’m nothing but dots. The wrinkles aren’t real, either.

Think of the back of our brains, the occipital lobes, as being a screen that does nothing more than show the image projected from our retinas. If that were the whole story, we’d perceive a blur that was upside down, fragmented and lacking in the ability to connect it with anything we ever saw before.

The system only works because there is a brain in your head, a fantastic, imperfect, interpreter of the world — three pounds that contain trillions of synapses. Those synapses are constantly making new connections and breaking old ones.

Why shouldn’t we trust what we’ve seen? Why should we be cautious about the information the world feeds into it? Read on and see if the explanations works for you, or test your skepticism on my ideas.

The eyes are only a small part of understanding our vulnerabilities, but they are a good starting place. Look at a face, any familiar face. OK, your spouse will do.

Light reflects off that face and passes through the lenses of two eyes. Each lens flips the image upside-down.

A study I enjoyed reading about required subjects to wear glasses that made everything look like it was flipped on its head. Within hours, while still wearing the glasses, the subjects began to see everything right-side-up.

What happened? Did their brains turn everything into a true representation of their surroundings?

I think not. Rather, our brain relies on memory to interpret what passes through it. When we see that spouse of ours, there are connections that tell you who it is, how you are feeling about them in that moment, and whether there is something funny about the way they are walking today.

It may incorporate a message that you shouldn’t mention the word “waddle” or ask if they developed an itch somewhere.

Unfortunately, the process of remembering is a messy business. It draws from many areas of the brain. We pull together components and reconstruct or re-remember them.

The number of light receiving units, neurons in our eye is smaller than a good camera. As the picture races to the occiput, the wires from the two eyes crisscross to make a single shot and that brings in memories, emotions. It creates magic, and it also makes us prey to magical thinking and to those scoundrels or entertainers who may manipulate your feelings with the tools of neuromarketing.

The entertainers are fun. I’ll start with them.

In Vegas or Seattle, you may have seen a beautiful woman on stage. She wore a stunning white dress that exposed her long legs. She held your attention while the magician’s patter distracted your thoughts. He promises to turn her dress red.

The lights dim and the stage then glows bright red. Everything including the dress hit your eyes as a rose-colored flash. It seems silly. Of course, the dress is red.

A bit more patter about the failed experiment is followed by a second dimming of the lights. Suddenly the stage is bathed in a blinding white light. This time her dress is red.

The trick involves an after image, like the circle of light that you would see after you foolishly stared at the sun or, inescapably, into camera flash. The magician has sensitized the red receptors in your eyes, hit you with a blinding white light and made you miss the wires that pulled the white dress beneath the floor. The red one was under it.

This and other visual illusions are beautifully described in the book, “Sleights of Mind,” published by Picador in 2010. I’d suggest reading it if you want to understand the tricks our eyes play on us.

It may help you realize, too, that some of the worst evidence to ever put a man in prison is an eyewitness account. I hope you will want to learn more about the minds and hearts that define us.

My next article will be my last for the foreseeable future. I have a new novel coming out next month, “The Hospice Conspiracy”, and I’m writing my third. Judy and I also are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year and will travel to some of our favorite places in the world.

I’ll be on Facebook and include medical articles. I’ll be leaving the U-B with regrets.

I’ve been writing these articles for more than two years. I do have some final thoughts about your health for my final article.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor and oncologist who lives in Walla Walla. A former U.S. Army Green Berets medical officer with experience in the Middle East, he also is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Suitcase,” a novel available at amazon.com and other online book retailers. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.

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