Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Perception & the Paranormal: Top Down Processing

Perception: Top Down Processing

At any given time whilst investigating the paranormal our senses are exposed to a limitless amount of sensations. Sounds, smells, sights, textures, light and darkness, touch, all flooding your central nervous system and brain which then must process all these events at once, to give you what you perceive as reality.
 We can break these systems down to two essential processes;

 Sensation; what we are feeling through our senses.

Perception; how our brain deals with the sensory input and then makes sense of the input information.

In general, these two terms, when put together, are referred to as Processing.

In psychology, there are generally two types of processing, Schema-Driven (Top Down Processing) and Data-Driven (Bottom Up Processing). In this article, we are looking only at Top Down Processing as a perception that may lead a paranormal investigator to perceive an anomalous event as “paranormal” when it is a natural event misinterpreted by pre-conceived notions or biases.
 Many paranormal events can be explained by various cognitive mechanisms such as fantasy. The way we analyse statistical probabilities and anecdotal evidence can also lead us to draw faulty conclusions when it comes to anomalous events.

An example of this is demonstrated live by Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychological Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London. In his demonstration, Professor French plays a recording of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”” in reverse.
 The recording makes no sense in reverse, and sounds like garbled words. It is not until Prof. French puts forward what other people think is being said within the reverse recording, that listeners begin to hear the same phrases that he has suggested.
 This is common in the paranormal community with EVP recordings – without the text suggesting the words in an EVP video, people will hear all kinds of different words or sounds, but once it has the context of words added, people will almost always hear the words suggested.

We often experienced a variation of on ghost tours we hosted. People would come to the tour hyped up (we referred to it as “hypersensitive”) expecting to see, feel, hear or be touched by a “ghost”. The slightest change in temperature, a creek of floorboard or something that is easily explainable, these people, through no fault of their own, other than the hype (and “legend Tripping”) would believe the interaction was paranormal in nature – when, clearly, to myself and my wife, it was not.
 This is an excellent example of a schema-driven process, the experiencer is processing information based on prior knowledge and influence, and making a fantasy inspired conclusion on a misperception.

Top Down Processing: The brain is at the top of the cognitive processes, therefore thought comes before perceptions, such as the senses like touch, sight etc. using contextual information in pattern recognition.
 An example of this is understanding difficult to read hand writing. It is easier to understand a complete sentence due to the context of the words around it, rather than the individual words with no context.

Bottom Up Processing: Simply put, this is the processing of information in the reverse of Top Down Processing.  The body reacts first, causing emotion, which triggers the brains cognitive process, engaging thought, then action. You may be a Bottom up processor if your understanding of concepts begins with the ideas behind a concept, then working your way up to the main idea of a concept.

The Necker Cube:

The ambiguity of perception is best explained with the example of The Necker Cube. When you stare at the crosses on the cube the orientation can suddenly change, or 'flip'.

It is argued that the object appears to ‘flip’ because the brain creates two plausible propositions for the objects orientation and cannot decided between the two.

There is no change in sensory input, therefore the perception of distance must be set downward by prevailing perceptual hypothesis of what is near and what is far – top down processing.  

The Stroop Effect, named after its discoverer, J. Ridley Stroop who discovered the phenomenon in the 1930’s, is a classic example of Top-Down Processing.

The Stroop Effect contains several colours written as words, but printed in a different colour than the word read. So, for instance, the word “blue” might be written in green text, the word “Pink” might be written in the colour yellow.

The idea here is to say the colour of the word, but not say the word itself – so for our previous examples, the correct answers would be “green” and “yellow”. When reaction times are calculated, people are much slower at saying the correct colour when the colour and word are different.

Want to test your skills with the Stroop Effect – go here:

Written and researched by Allen Tiller © 2017


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