Look at the picture above. Focus completely on the dot in the middle, stay still and don’t blink.
Within about 5-10 seconds, you might notice that all of the colours disappear.
And while it might seem just like an interesting trick, it actually tells us a lot about how your brain works, and why it can be so hard to think of new, truly creative ideas.
I learned about this phenomenon at a recent public lecture series I was at called “Instant Expert: How Your Brain Works” by New Scientist Live in London.
Amongst several excellent talks was Professor George Mather, Professor of Vision Science/Director of Research from the University of Lincoln who talked about Sensation and Perception.
In it, he introduced some of the most up to date research on how the brain processes signals it receives from all of its senses to figure out what is happening in the world. One of the examples he used was an optical illusion similar to the one above, which is apparently called the Filling-in illusion.
The science behind why the colours disappear isn’t perfectly understood yet. After all, it is important to understand that what your eye is seeing (and therefore the neuron impulses it is sending to the brain) are not changeing. The image itself still has colour all the time (check as many times as you want), and therefore the photons of light which your screen emits, and which hit the cells at the back of your eye, still say that there is colour.
In order for you to not “see” the colour anymore, your brain must therefore override the signal coming from your eyes. According to Prof Mather, there is just too much information coming from your senses for your brain to process everything. Instead, the brain has evolved a powerful ability to assume what should happen, based on experience and memories of previous patterns, and use that information instead of continually processing all the sensory information coming at it from all angles. This requires significantly less processing power and energy use for the brain. In many ways, this is your brain going on autopilot based on previous programming.
So for the illusion above, if you stare at the dot and the colour pattern doesn’t change, then your brain will notice that it lack of change and start making assumptions about what should be in that space instead of seeing what is in that space. Since the surrounding screen space is also light coloured / white, and the colours are very light coloured, the brain will assume that the whole area should be white. You can notice the moment your brain makes this change when the colours disappear. But when your eyes move, then your brain notices that something has changed, and processes the image again, making the colours reappear.
Another fantastic example came from Astronaut Scott Kelly, who recently broke the record for the longest amount of time (340 days) a human was in space. While also gaining about 1 1/2 inches in height due to the lack of gravity, there was another strange side effect when he returned to earth. The 52-year-old astronaut said because his skin hasn’t had significant contact with anything for so long (in space, clothes just float around you instead of being pulled onto you by gravity):
“it’s very, very sensitive. It’s almost like a burning feeling wherever I like sit or lie or walk.”
In your case, you probably can’t feel your clothes touching your skin (unless you’re wearing a very itchy sweater, like the one my grandmother made me when I was 4), because you do it so often that your brain doesn’t process the signals anymore. Same reason you can’t smell your own deodorant (or in some cases why you need deodorant) or hear most noises when you sleep.
Other fantastic examples come from the seminal book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Here he shows numerous examples of how the brain has biases and is much more effective at solving problems based on memories and pattern recognition rather than having to try and solve new problems which require a different way of thinking. And the more frequently a neural pathway is used to solve a problem, the stronger and more efficient it becomes.
So what does this have to do with creativity and innovation? A lot.
If you don’t keep feeding your mind new challenges and input, it will become more and more comfortable going through life using the same neural pathways (and therefore thinking processes) it always uses. You will essentially spend more and more of your life on autopilot. This may be good for repetitive tasks, but it makes it much harder for your brain to break through those “comfort barriers” and start using the less energy efficient new / unused pathways to formulate new ideas.
This comfort barrier is why so many people feel uncomfortable when they are asked to be creative. Yes, it might be slightly scary. But for many people it literally forces them to experience a degree of discomfort as their mind is not used to trying out lots of random new connections and pathways.
This is one of the reasons why I created the 30 Day Creativity Training tracker. This free training shows you easy everyday activities you can try to get your brain more efficient at forming these new ideas.
You can get yours free, including the explanation of how it use it, by clicking the button here:
YES! I want to be even more creative
So go on, make sure you are as creative as you can be.
And if you found this illusion and the insight behind it interesting, then share it with your family, friends and colleagues.
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