The Importance of Context

faces/vase illusionI’ve described composing experience as a process of selecting and assembling bits of information from an ongoing perceptual stream into the multidimensional images we use to experience the world around us. The familiar faces/vase figure provided one example of how using information from different parts of the perceptual stream can produce different experiences, while the various ways that different people compose their perceptions of their own bodies provided others. But composing experience involves more than simply the selecting a portion of the perceptual stream. It also involves interpreting the information selected giving it meaning within the context of the experience. The same information may be interpreted very differently depending on the surrounding context.

B/13 ambiguous figureA simple example of the importance of context is shown here. The central character can be read as the letter B or the number 13, depending on whether you read across or down. At first glance, this looks similar to the faces/vase — both figures are ambiguous and will support each of two interpretations. On closer examination, though, the mechanism here is quite different from the mechanism operating with the faces and vase. The switch between the B and the 13 doesn’t come from assembling the figure from different portions of the perceptual stream. Both the B and the 13 are constructed from the same raw data. The difference lies in the surrounding context. When you read horizontally, you interpret that data in the context of the A and C and see a B. When you read vertically, the same information (now in the context of the 12 and 14) becomes a 13. The perceptual principle here is that

your experience of a situation (the B/13, in this case) depends
on the context within which you interpret that situation

The video in the previous posting on “Composing Different Experiences. . .” provided a more complex example of this phenomenon. The most common context for that situation — as resisting something someone is doing to you — leads to an experience of conflict and disempowerment, but changing the context can lead to different and much more empowering experiences.

faces/vase illusionThe “virtual triangle” shown here illustrates another important perceptual principle. Most people clearly see a white triangle resting on top of a black triangle and three black circles. The white triangle is so clear, in fact, that many people believe they can see its white edges against the white background — even though, objectively, there are no edges there. When I’ve used this figure in workshops attendees have sometimes insisted that the white triangle must a slightly different shade of white than the background, so sure were they that they could se the edges. One man argued that I must have drawn guidelines and then erased them when I prepared the figure, and that the edges he thought he saw resulted from those erasures.

This illustrates a principle of perceptual organization that was present in both earlier examples, but not sharply foregrounded. You don’t experience incoming information directly. Instead, you assemble it into things you know how to experience. In effect, you compose your experience as a way of explaining the information you have selected from your perceptual stream, and

you have a bias in favor of simpler and more familiar
explanations over more complex and unfamiliar explanations.

A white triangle sitting on top of a black triangle and three circles provide a simpler and more familiar explanation here than do the less familiar partial circles. (In the preceding examples as well, the faces, the vase, the B and the 13 provided familiar explanations for the visual data being received, giving those shapes their meaning in the first place.) It’s much easier to experience a known stereotype that matches the incoming data than to experience it as something new and unique.

Composing your experience requires a constant stream of unconscious choices about what information to use and how to assemble that information into the perceptual images that become your experience. These examples have been simple and uncluttered, making it east to isolate some of underlying perceptual principles that guide those choices.

Real-life situations and perceptions are more complex, however, involving many things happening at once. Our next example, shown in the video below, introduces greater complexity though it is still largely artificial. It reflects the principles we’ve isolated with earlier examples, as well as an important new element.xx

This video shows an excerpt from a workshop in which I replicate an experiment performed in late 1940s by psychologists J. Brunner and L. Postman. Subjects were shown a series of playing cards for short, precisely measured intervals. The cards were initially flashed too quickly to be recognized. The presentation interval was then gradually increased until the subject could reliably identify most cards. Mixed into the sequence were anomalous cards like a red six of spades, whose color didn’t match its suit. The purpose of the experiment was to investigate how subjects would respond to the anomalous cards.

The results are fascinating. At presentation intervals long enough to allow identification of most cards but too short to really look at them, subjects would unambiguously identify an anomalous card as a card it was “close to.” A red six of spades might be seen as either a six of spades or as a six of hearts, depending on whether that subject cued primarily on shape or on color. With slightly longer presentation intervals subjects would make the same identification, but they would feel uncomfortable without knowing why. They might report something like “It’s a six of hearts, and I think I forgot to lock my house when I left home this morning.” Some subjects saw things that were not present, like black outlines around the hearts, or gray spades, as their minds tried to integrate the apparent conflicts between shape and color in the anomalous cards. Eventually, when the presentation interval got long enough, most subjects would see red spade. Some, though, would stick with their incorrect identification until the anomaly was pointed out to them. I’ve experienced all of these reactions and more in reproductions of this experiment in workshops and in private conversations.

These responses reflect all of the perceptual principles illustrated by our earlier examples. As with the virtual triangle, subjects fitted what they saw into a familiar pattern. As with the B/13, the context of the experiment (playing cards, with four standard suits) determined what they saw. As with the faces/vase, what they saw depended on what they focused on; those who focused on color saw red spades as hearts, those who focused on shape saw them as spades.

The new element not present in earlier examples is that the subjects filtered out and threw away information that didn’t fit their preexisting conceptual categories. If you really look at a red six of spades, what you see is a red six of spades. Those who saw a six of hearts threw away the shape, while those who saw a six of spades threw away the color. And once they had made an incorrect decision, some subjects would hold to it even when they had enough time to take everything in. Indeed, in replicating this experiment myself, I’ve seen people become so fixated once they made a choice that they could hold a red six of spades in their hands and still see it as a six of hearts.

In the next posting we’ll incorporate past experience and expectation in the model.

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Context”

  1. Hi Ralph,
    This is fascinating. Again I’m flummoxed by reality! Thank you for helping to open the doors of our perception. The video does good service to your relaxed and friendly approach. . . the musical ending is a nice acoustic touch too.


  2. I’m glad you liked it, Jaclyn. The red spade experiment has been one of my favorites since I came acress it may 30 years ago. It illuminates so clearly an phenomenon that seems to crop up all over the place. I’ll give some other examples later of the the same phenomenon in what seem to be hard and fast physical situations.


  3. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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