Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The phantom touch illusion

It seems like every time researchers look further into our sensory-perceptive systems, we have another hole punched in our certainty that what we think we're perceiving is actually real.

We've looked at optical illusions -- and the fact that dogs fall for 'em, too.  We've considered two kinds of auditory illusions, the postdictive effect and the McGurk effect.  Sometimes we see patterns of motion in still objects -- and illusory "impossible" motion that our brains just can't figure out.  A rather simple protocol convinced test subjects their hands had turned to stone.  Stimulating a particular clump of neurons in the brain made patients see the doctor's face as melting.  We can even be tricked into feeling like we're controlling a second body, that just happens to be invisible.

As eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "The human brain is rife with ways of getting it wrong."  Honestly, at this point it's a wonder we trust anything we perceive -- and yet you still hear people say "I saw it with my own eyes" as if that somehow carried any weight at all.  Add to that all the problems with the reliability of memory, and you have to ask why eyewitness accounts are still considered the gold standard of evidence.

If you needed more proof of this, take a look at some research that came out last week from Ruhr-Universit├Ąt Bochum into what happens when a person watches a virtual-reality avatar of their own body.  Participants were suited up in VR gear, and after a period of acclimation -- during which they got used to their avatar's arms and hands moving as their own did -- they were instructed to use a virtual representation of a stick to touch their avatar's hand.  Nearly all of the subjects reported feeling a sensation of touch, or at least a tingling, at the spot the virtual stick appeared to touch.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Samuel Zeller samuelzeller, VR (Unsplash VK284NKoAVU), CC0 1.0]

The researchers decided to check and see if the sensation occurred simply by drawing awareness to the hand, so they did the same thing only using a virtual laser pointer -- and no feeling of touch occurred.

Apparently all it took was convincing the subjects they were being touched to stimulate the sensation itself.

"The phantom touch illusion also occurs when the subjects touched parts of their bodies that were not visible in virtual reality," said study co-author Marita Metzler.  "This suggests that human perception and body sensation are not only based on vision, but on a complex combination of many sensory perceptions and the internal representation of our body."

The whole thing brings to mind a conversation I had with an acquaintance, a Ph.D. in philosophy, some years ago about the impossibility of proving materialism.  I'd always considered myself a hard-nosed materialist, but her stance was that no one could prove the external world was real.  I shot back with a snarky, "Well, that works until someone throws a rock at your head.  Hard to deny the rock isn't real after that."  She patiently responded, "No.  What is real are the sensations you experience -- the shock, the pain, the adrenaline rush.  Possibly a period of loss of consciousness.  You're still locked inside your own skull, and the only thing you have access to are your own thoughts and feelings.  Those are all you can be certain are real experiences -- and even those might well be false or misleading."

Well, it was a fair knockout (pun intended), and I still haven't really come up with a rejoinder.  Not that this is surprising; philosophers have been discussing the whole materialism vs. idealism thing for centuries, and haven't really settled it to anyone's satisfaction.  And since the time of that argument, I've found more and more evidence that we experience through our sensory-perceptive apparatus only the barest fraction of what's out there -- what neuroscientist David Eagleman calls our umwelt -- and even that part, we see inaccurately.

Kind of humbling, isn't it?  Think about that next time someone starts acting so all-fired certain about their own perceptions, memories, experiences, and opinions.  The more you know, they more you should realize that none of us should be sure of anything.

But after all, doubt isn't a bad place to start.  I'll end as I did yesterday, with a quote from the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself; and you are the easiest person to fool."

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