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The Importance of Context

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Perception.

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

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