Brigitte invited her husband to a university reunion 25 years after she graduated. Afterwards she remarked on how little everyone had changed and how young they all still looked. Her husband laughed and said she had to be joking. To him, they looked every inch like a bunch of middle-aged ladies, and Brigitte’s confusion grew when he said a couple of them looked like they would soon be drawing a pension.
One of the strongest cues that prevents us from ‘ageing backwards’ is the idea that ageing is a one-way street. The information that ageing is inevitable is seared into our world view, and to question it is considered merely vanity. However, underneath the fear of vanity there is often a greater fear, that of questioning the status quo, the world-as-is, of daring to transcend the reality we have been confronted with since childhood because the consequences of doing so are unknown, and may be dangerous.
Stepping out into the unknown is not for the faint-hearted. A paradigm shift – a change in the basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science – is a revolutionary move that threatens to alienate us from society, and perhaps isolate us completely. Who wants to be a circus freak?
In this way our thoughts and perceptions perpetuate our reality. Challenging the collective consciousness seems frightening, but there is really no need to fear people’s reactions if we succeed in convincing the cells of our body that we are 30 instead of 60. The reason? No one will notice.
Change blindness is a well-studied phenomenon where people fail to notice even glaringly obvious changes to their world because of the way the brain works. According to scientists in the Department of Psychology at the University of Glasgow in collaboration with the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt, the brain uses memory and recall perception rather than what is actually there when viewing a familiar object or environment. We can only focus on a small part of our visual field, since trying to take in all details, all the time, would be exhausting. So our brain fills in the rest from memory even if things have changed since we first saw them. It saves energy by predicting what it is likely to see. This is one of the reasons we do not notice people ageing.
At a lecture given by a neuroscientist, the backdrop was an image of a European street. At the end of the lecture the professor asked the audience if they had noticed anything about the picture. No one had. Then he displayed the original image from the beginning of the lecture. There was an audible gasp – dozens of details had been changed, and no one had noticed. The brains of the people in the audience had used memory to predict what they were seeing at the end of the evening – thus completely missing the changes. The visual cortex does not simply react to visual stimuli but proactively predicts what it is likely to see in any given context – for example, within familiar environments such as your house or office.
This process is known as predictive coding and it suggests the brain is actively anticipating what input it will receive, rather than passively processing information as it arrives. This is why sometimes we miss new sights in a familiar environment. Our brain is seeing what it expects to see, rather than what is actually there. The brain transcends reality and replaces it with what it thinks should be reality. In Kantian philosophy, to “transcend” a direct observation or experience is to use reason and classifications to strive to match prior knowledge with the phenomena that are observed. Spot-the-difference games use many areas of the brain at once and are actually quite complex tasks, used in ‘brain training’ exercises.
Interesting experiments have been done demonstrating this “change blindness” (see video page). In one experiment a man at a desk bends down to fetch a document for a test participant, and hides while a completely different individual, with different hair type and colour, stands back up and continues to explain the test. 75% of participants failed to notice. The brain is very good at concentrating on individual tasks but can also make us miss something happening right in front of our eyes. Although individuals have a very good memory as to whether or not they have seen an image, they are generally poor at recalling the smaller details in that image. When we are visually stimulated with a complex image individuals usually retain only a gist of it and not the picture in its entirety. Magicians of course exploit this.
People reinterpret events to fit their view of reality, to avoid the collapse of their world. If we suddenly looked years younger most people who know us probably wouldn’t notice and if they did they’d put it down to more sleep or a better diet – even though tests have demonstrated that telomeres actually get longer even simply with lifestyle changes. Strangers however will see someone young. Did the world collapse when Christie Brinkley turned 60 and still looked 40? No, people merely laughed and asked who her surgeon was, which fits the current view no one over sixty can look young and beautiful without artificial help. But surgery alone can never make anyone look that much younger.
This is a post for advanced shape-shifters (see blog post “Shapeshifting”).