Your Reality Might Not be Mine Sensory Perception and Empathy Poppy Crum TEDxLA

I believe we can be more human if we accept more than one reality in February 2015 something happened it had a divisive impact on the world people said it challenged their objective truth Time magazine said it changed the course of internet history forever I'd like to call it a fashion disagreement but there's something more important about this we have a really hard time accepting that we experience the physical world differently many of you remember the image of this dress a lot of us see it differently some people see it as white and gold some people see it as blue and black I happen to see it as white and gold turns out I'm wrong the color you can go buy in the store is actually blue and black but it's not about the actual color of the dress that's not what matters what matter is how our brain perceives the color in this image people have looked at things like demographics whether that drive these differences does it matter if you're a boy or a girl young or old or what kind of lighting environments you've spent time in and at the core of all of these is that how we experience the world your brain is constantly integrating information about your life's experiences in this case about luminance shadow and color to make probabilistic decisions and it turns out that we all have slightly different information going into that equation so I can bias you if I change the context to see this image differently hopefully maybe we see it differently now but I can also take it away and hopefully now we all see it the same these kinds of perceptual Mally abilities happen all the time so I'm hoping we can take some time and think about where there's power and opportunity in understanding these differences I'm going to tell you some stories some are personal some are about art some are about immersive technologies but they're all about the power of gaining empathy to each other's experiences that if we can understand how we can see hear and feel the exact same information in the world in entirely different ways we have an opportunity we have an opportunity a chance to move away from all of the dehumanization that people talk about and rehumanize our interactions and the technologies we built and used to do this I've been a violinist since I was three I was nine the first time I knew my I heard the world a little differently I always assumed everyone knew my refrigerator hum to be flat could write down the notes of a song or was like really uncomfortable if happy birth they didn't start on Adi and I have absolute pitch not particularly unique in this way there are plenty of us who have this we hear sound a lot like many of us see color but it does mean we see we hear the world differently it's not good or bad it just is consequently I've spent my life as a neurophysiologist as a technologist and as a musician trying to understand these differences in perception in the brain processes that drive them as scientists we spend our lives trying to understand and look for the ways for the most similar I truly believe that the innovation leaps and interaction leaps we need to make are going to come from understanding the ways were the most different for example so before my mom passed away she had macular degeneration she would say something to me like I can see but I can't see so it's kind of a nonsensical statement what do you do with something like that macular degeneration typically involves deterioration of the central part of someone's retina people with it experience a blind spot in their central vision I get ocular migraines the types of migraines I get a wave of innervation travels through my brain and my brain areas important for my central vision when those cells are being innovated by that wave they can't respond to information in the external world and I develop a blind spot in my central vision it looks a lot like this if you try reading and tracking the yellow dot you'll see this is this is a lot like the experience I have so for 15 minutes a year when I'm having this type of experience I see the world as my mom did in order to see something I have to look away from it when she says to me I concede what I can't see I get it I can empathize and I change I changed the way I think about innovations to help her life I spent time building contraptions that magnified what she was looking away from instead of what she was looking at and I fundamentally think differently about the types of interactions I can have with her to connect it's this place where a headache and messed up vision that so many we spend our times trying to avoid actually gave me invaluable insight to my mom's world but it's not always that easy to see both sides sometimes we're doing it and we don't even know it unfortunately though no truly knowing what someone is hearing feeling or seeing is is difficult it's difficult to know when it's happening and even when it is most of us don't even know how to describe it but there are people who are really good at describing what they see and it gives us this opportunity to peek into their sensory world and ways we might not even realize there's a condition called facial dysmorphia so people that have facial dis Marfatia don't see faces naturally when they're looking at a face the features appear to move so everywhere their gaze is directed they develop a blind spot and it fills them with nearby information this gives the illusion of sort of movement of the faces and sort of contorted and distorted figures I'm going to show you an example of that I was only willing to do this to my face that's why you get to look at me but if you stare at the little cross I may follow the yellow crosses and you'll sort of get an idea of what this experience might look like for someone with this condition okay so you saw that it also kind of looks like this Francis Bacon was 20th century painter very well known for painting abstract art the import rates that were a contorted sort of distorted figures it turns out Francis Bacon had a condition that was likely facial dysmorphia so when he was sharing what we look at the art in this case he was actually representing how he truly saw the world Monet's water lilies so this is something I noticed when I was looking at this painting that I thought was interesting so if you stare I find that when I stare at one of the lilies and I close one I go ahead and do that I actually the lily seems to pop out more almost as if it's in 3d okay so I'm not an art historian art critic but I am a scientist and when I see things like this I got ahead of hypotheses about Monet's vision there are different pieces of information ways that we accuse we take in from the world to be able to know where an object is in space and depth in particular some of those cues make use of one eye we call them monocular some of those cubes make use of two eyes and we call them binocular cues like color shading and occlusion whether one objects in front of the other all of those can we can get from one eye but cues that require two eyes something like relative disparity which is actually a very important cue required that both eyes are functioning functioning normally so I had a hypothesis that Monet actually couldn't make use of the information coming from both eyes turns out Monet had very bad cataracts and when you started looking around his cataracts were so bad that when he painting water lilies he actually had one of the cataracts removed and this is a time when we didn't trip late when lenses weren't replaced so money couldn't have made use of the information from two eyes but the information from one eye was likely very developed at making use of that information so when you look at this painting now and you look through one eye you really are seeing it more like Monet there's a power to seeing both sides but we don't always get the clairvoyance of the Manta Magritte's painting but we can accept and understand the power perspective has on perception so I'm going to show you an example where something as simple as changing your gaze completely changes how you experience the world I want you all to look up to the right hand corner and you're gonna there's some sunlight in the water and you should see bubbles that are sort of rising up to the surface if you're staring at that Sun like those bubbles probably appear to sort go up and fly off the screen does everyone see that and they fly off the screen kind of at an angle now shift your gaze to where the bubbles are okay so now you probably realize those bubbles are going straight up you can go back and forth this experience happens because our brain has a trouble resolving conflicting information about local and global motion the bubbles have a horizontal grating that's moving across them while they're rising vertically when your gaze is directed at the bubbles we can separate them and we can experience them both as they are but when your gaze is directed away we experience an integration of that information kind of a cool thing but of course I like to put a bigger message on it so there are a few things here it's the power of perspective something as simple as moving my gaze completely changes how I experience what's in front of me and when I my gaze when my perspective is directed in one place or another I can't choose to see it differently even though I've had the experience before I don't get to I know it's there but I can't experience the same way my perspective determines how I experience it but I do have the power to choose to know that someone else might be experiencing it's that way right now that is the power of knowing both sides the human problem is different and it's there's a lot of opacity here we don't always know the state of our biology and our brains constantly change things like hearing loss or changes in our vision these are happening all the time to our lower sensory processes but even things like our environments affect our context and affect our sensitivities whether we grew up in a village in Afghanistan or a town in the Midwest or in a city like New York or Kathmandu with different pressures neuroplasticity helps us take the information that's statistically prevalent and relevant in our environments and make use of it so that we change to adapt to our environments things like color shading contour all tried this cultural language differences and the categorical boundaries we form can cause us to have different experiences at the most basic level of whether we see green or blue some are more obvious some less so and sometimes we actually get an opportunity to try on each other sensory experiences we did this with a pair of arthritis simulation gloves what we wanted to do here was see if we could take a group of non-designers and give them an empathetic experience of their target user group to work with and it would change how they thought about the problem how would it change their cognitive approach to the problem the group with the gloves did change they thought about simplicity in their design they thought about space they got rid of things like drop-down menus which are you know completely terrible for anyone with digit mobility issues they changed how they thought about the problem and they changed what they thought was important immersive technologies like augmented and virtual reality are really starting to try to bridge this gap to empathy in the case of the arthritis gloves experience was powerful it gave them an empathetic experience that was actionable in what they did but we have to go further we have to go further than just showing experiences we have to actually engage sensory experiences in a way that is authentic and natural to how our senses interact in the natural world so let me give you an example of where I when I realized how powerful that this was if we did this right in we were developing some cond some new technologies adult imaging technologies at my company one of the things we were looking at was the impact of brightness just so you realize a typical display you would have bought three years ago was 310 dollars per square meter the natural moon is about one to two thousand candelas we were looking at luminances much brighter than that and we were looking at fire content so we were watching this fire content and something happened people reacted I've reacted in ways I hadn't predicted just by seeing an image of fire and watching this my body started to expel heat as if it were real we took we could take thermal imaging cameras and measure changes in the temperature on people's faces we could the screen wasn't changing but we were reacting to the content in a way that was natural in this case all my brain knew was it had never experienced fire that was that right and wasn't real so it did what it did best and just based on the luminance reaching my retina and my knowledge of flame my body did what it does if we are gonna build experiences to try to bridge and share and gain empathy to each other's experiences we have to build immersive acknowledged ease that bridge this natural sensory experience so I've been talking a lot about why we should care about empathy and why we need to have empathy but there is one problem what we don't get empathy unless we make ourselves vulnerable and we don't like to do that Beethoven lived in fear that people would find out he was going deaf and losing his hearing we have more and more outlets which we all use where we get to curate who we are and what people see about us but we know from game theory prisoner's dilemma Nash equilibrium that we end up in a suboptimal state not as good as we could do if we don't share our vulnerabilities so to get to the place where we want to be we have to be able to empathize with others vulnerabilities but we also have to be willing to share our own so the next time you interact with someone and it doesn't make sense to the way you see the world it challenges it maybe they challenge you rather than assuming they have the same information to make decisions about the world that you do assume they don't assume it's different empathy and experience are powerful and they give us an opportunity to change we can change our behaviors we can change our technologies we can change our assumptions about why someone might be interacting with us in a way that we don't particularly like we need to change our perspective if you could see hear or feel someone else's alternate reality today and question your own perceptions what will you change thank you [Applause]