Mastering the optical illusion - spinning dancer

Understanding why an optical illusion works can teach us some aspect of vision. Beating the illusion, however, can be more compelling. The spinning dancer by Nobuyuki Kayahara is one of my favorites. It relies upon incomplete movement and depth cues, forcing your brain to make a choice. Because the light does not illuminate the body in ways to suggest direction of the spin, the image is ambiguous. You might see her spinning in one direction and then suddenly flip. Which way do you see her spinning? If you stay with it for a bit, do you see her flip? Can you make her flip at will? Play with it a bit before moving on to the hints.

Using your capacity to understand a human body in movement through your embodied experience of it and through mirror neurons, try the following:

  1. Tilt your head opposite the direction you see the dancer’s head. Wait a few moments. Did if flip? If not…

  2. Notice her head is slightly tilted back. Keep your head in the same position and tilt your head slight backward. Flip yet? If not…

  3. Keep your head position and add an extended arm, mimicking the direction opposite to what you see.

Now play around until you can flip back and forth at will. Have fun, please share, and leave your comments below.

Embodied perception in the age of the attention economy

Technology is increasingly personal. Do you understand how this impacts you? Feeling more distracted? That’s intentional. Confused by too many options? That’s human. Overwhelmed by information? That’s innate limitation.

First, how did you we get here? More importantly, what can you do about it? In this age of intimate and intentional tech, embodiment promotes the antidote: empathy.

Intimate tech

With the introduction of tactile interface, the hardware of our digital devices is self-adjacent and the software is immediately responsive. These two points have changed our relationship with technology. Touch is a sense that can signal safety and familiarity. For you to touch something in a manner that is nonviolently interactive implies to your nervous system that you trust this thing enough to engage with it in your peripersonal space. As it continues to become more personal, the natural evolution of intimate tech is for it to become embedded in you or an extension of your physicality.

Intentional behavior

Software becomes smarter every day: it has troves of information and its processes are self-learning and generative. Artificial intelligence has reached a point where it is not transparent, even to the developers who designed it. Big data and deep learning are upending what psychologist Daniel Kahneman terms ‘slow thinking’. Artificial intelligence (AI) has made the slow deliberation of cognitive analysis a fast but disembodied process. With no need to consult and check gut instinct, AI can process data more consistently and more rapidly than human capacity.

As a data point, you are identified, profiled, and targeted in ways previous generations have never seen. In order to persuade you, understanding motivational psychology for manipulation through technology has become a dedicated school of academic study. In many respects, tech is exhibiting a type of intentional behavior.

In the information age, what is the limited resource? Information is free-flowing and easily accessible. Your attention, however, is something that you have in limited amounts. The intention for many tech companies is to capture your attention and accumulate your data for precise targeting. The perfect product in this age is not what they sell to you, but the vehicle with which you give your resource to them. In exchange for searching a free library of information or a free way to share your personal stories, in the attention economy you have become the product. Tech is consuming your attention, tracking your activities and movements, profiling your purchasing patterns, driving you to more extreme sources of information, and manipulating your vulnerabilities.

Empathy through embodiment

In this context of intimate, intentional tech that is changing how we perceive and interact, it makes sense to educate yourself on what creates your experience of the world: what is universal, what is specific to my family, what is specific to my culture, what is unique to me? If you investigate what creates your deepest experience of the world in terms of your own universally human functions, you’ll start to understand what others experience as well. This is the basis for empathy.

Cultivating empathy starts by tuning into yourself. Intimate and intentional tech has revealed what is largely unconscious in our daily action. It is a wake-up call to expand skills of perception and to elevate intentional behavior. Social psychologist Sherry Turkle puts forth conversation as a key way to learn the social dance of accommodating to another person. The back and forth that she describes is grounded in mirror neurons, receptive listening, and sensing into the felt impact of words. Literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf studies the generative power of reading to spark imagination and an expanded experience of self. Perception in this case is happening in your mind. Can you allow yourself to get swept up into the story and characters? Good writing helps take you there, but reading for deep experiential impact is a skill that requires practice.

Both of these avenues of empathy-building can be amplified when you understand yourself from a bottom-up approach. That means you examine the very nature of your sensory experience. Do you understand how you relate to the experiences of gravity, sound, and light? It’s something you can learn with guidance and intention, over time, but you can start right now by understanding the characteristics of these forces.

Gravity is a force that is constant and present at all times. It is steady, reliable, and powerful. Working with gravity through posture, walking, and physical challenge, you develop an internal experience of support and power.

Sound is essentially tactile. It is vibration of the eardrum, of the bones, of the skin. Sound perception lays down the emotional foundation for communication and is the core of social engagement. Perceiving sound well organizes your posture for receptive listening.

Light is processed through your visual system on multiple levels, but ultimately interpreting light to form visual input that is meaningful is an experiential and constructed process.

Steady, emotional, constructive. These phenomenal experiences of gravity, sound, and light integrate within you as a scaffold for the more complex skills of social interaction. The complexity of the world that is revealed by intimate and intentional tech is what we have yet to examine deeply within ourselves. The most fundamental dynamic of our human experience is understood through the deepest layers of embodied perception.

Our embodied life through filters of perception

Embodiment is a way to use your body for greater insight into your mind. To understand how you perceive is to understand how you create meaning. The more embodied this process, the more clarity you can have in your self observations. The more complete your understanding of the perceptual process, the more compassionate you can be with yourself and consequently with others.

Your understanding of the world starts with your experience of it, and it is full of sensory impressions. You navigate the sensory forces in your life through the filters of your interpretation. To understand how that works, you have to go back to the womb, where sensory systems begin to develop.

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Inside the womb, you are held within a pressurized, fluid environment that gives you all you need. Light, sound, scents, and microgravity reach you and begin to shape your sensory perception. In fact, your auditory system, sense of deep touch, and sense of movement are well-formed before you emerge from the womb. The Tomatis Method is a sound therapy program developed by a French Ear Nose and Throat doctor who recognized this before the rest of the medical community did.

Emerging from this enclosed environment, your entire world is transformed with an explosion of light, high frequency sounds, strong scents, and increased gravitational force.  All of these forces are no longer mediated through amniotic fluid, and the pressure systems internal to you reorganize. Your lungs begin to breathe on their own; the expanding pressure of your viscera distends your belly.

Now you begin to create your own filters of perception, your own independent amniotic sac of sorts, to help you organize the overwhelm of sensations.

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The first filter is emotional. Dr. Stanley Greenspan describes the process of how you have learned to use emotions as shorthand guidance for survival behaviors. Emotions are collections of sensations identified with meaning. The process of decoupling sensation from meaning is a process for a mature nervous system. It is a nervous system in self-observation.

The second filter is developmental (learning to be upright in the gravitational field, to nourish and comfort yourself for independent survival, find your boundaries, share, speak your needs, etc.). It is tightly encoded with the lessons you learn within the context of your family. Your culture becomes another filter of understanding as you learn what it means to belong to a larger tribe or community.

The context of the generation into which you were born, or the historical era of your life, is yet another filter through which you process phenomenon such as gravity, light, sound, scents.

To understand personal experience, we can look at the level of the filter. Psychotherapy often works with the filter of development, delving into family history and personal narrative. Immigrants can maintain a sense of belonging by maintaining their cultural filter in their adopted homeland. As a society, we grapple with the implications of the era of information and the implications of addictive, manipulative media on the generation we call digital natives.

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But what if instead of focusing on the filters, we identified with the phenomenon of what we experience through our senses:  light, sound, scents, pressure, gravity? The commonality of our collective human experience is there - something to which we all belong, regardless of the filters of our perception. Learning to experience phenomena with more precision, with more clarity, is a way to anchor into universal forces that are not colored by filters.

Can you embody the force of gravity very clearly through your bones, evenly through your joints, in a way that allows the force of gravity to move through you? It's an act of surrender from the normal 'doing' mode of cognitively-driven tasks. But it is also an engagement with the environment in a way that is driven by refined perception. In some traditions they call this using 'life force' and it feels like a sort of non-doing. There is a sense of action, but it is deeply supported instead combative. Like surfing, you are hooking into a force that is larger than yourself, allowing you to surrender and enjoy the ride. Learning to do this is a skill for a lifetime.