It’s all in the detail

Have you ever noticed how the Circle line on a tube map looks like it changes colour part way around?

tube_map

When it’s next to the pink Hammersmith & City line it looks orange, but next to the green District line it looks yellow. So what colour is it?

It usually appears yellow, although we don’t always see it as yellow; our perception of colour changes depending on the context. The colour of the adjacent line changes the way we see the yellow line. Weird. But true.

I was lucky enough to be at a workshop a couple of years ago run by neuroscientist and fantastic speaker Beau Lotto where he talked about how our perception is different from reality, and how context, including colour, lighting and the position of objects, affects how we see and respond to the world. I knew context was important in understanding how we behave and think, but I’d been thinking in terms of social factors, emotions or even the weather. Not about how something as basic as light can affect how we see the world.

Beau demonstrated quite a few visual illusions  including the cube one (featured here, amongst others) where the same coloured square appears to be a different colour depending on the lighting conditions. It’s strange to think that what we think we see, or what our brains interpret as ‘real’, is sometimes a trick of the mind or function of how our brans are wired, rather than ‘truth’.

Another example of something really simple affecting how we see patterns, which I use in the consumer psychology course I run for the MRS, is to write a selection of letters of the alphabet – about 15 or so – on a flip chart and ask someone to spend about a minute making as many words from them as they can. Give someone else the same letters, but written in a different order, and the words they’ll each come up with tend to be different.

People make different patterns in the letters based on the order they’re presented in. Adjacent and nearby letters are put together to form new words, so when the order changes, so do the words created. This is also why writing ideas or concepts on cards and jumbling them up can work well as a creative technique – you make new connections between cards which you might not otherwise put together. Context, right down to the order something’s presented to us in, really is key to understanding how we interpret and interact with the world around us.

It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to understand or predict how people behave. Not only do we walk around on autopilot most of the time, and not only are we more influenced by our emotions than we tend to give credit for, but it turns out that even something as seemingly innocuous as light affects how we see the world. And most of the time, we’re probably not even aware of it. Here’s to trying to figure people out anyway.

How a cockroach turned me vegetarian

I’ve thought seriously about becoming a vegetarian since I was about 10 years old. I’ve never really eaten much meat; I used to try all sorts of tricks to avoid eating the pork, beef or other meaty yukkiness my mum used to make us as kids, from feeding the cats to dropping it in my cup when I thought no-one was looking, or trying to hide it under my leftover mashed potatoes and sneaking it into the bin. Incidentally, that’s not a criticism of my mum’s cooking, she just seemed to cook a lot of meat. Which I really didn’t like eating.

When I was 11, I asked my mum if I could become a vegetarian and when she asked why, I told her I didn’t like eating meat. She said, “wrong answer, so no you can’t,” and that was pretty much that. I’d eat burgers and bacon, but pretty much the only other meat I’d eat was mincemeat i.e. meat that didn’t have a meaty texture. But even then, if I thought about what I was eating, about the poor piggy or moo cow that used to run around a farm with their piggy and moo cows friends before ending up on my plate, I’d stop eating and feel pretty mean. And think about going veggie again.

But every time I thought about it, I thought about how much I liked eating burgers and how I’d gone 20 or 30-odd years not being a vegetarian and not labelling myself and not stopping myself from eating the odd burger. And after convincing myself the odd burger wouldn’t do any harm, each time I’d go back to being pretty much a vegetarian except the odd burger or bacon butty.

I have an ill-fated cockroach to thank for finally tipping me into a decision in September last year to vow never to eat anything with a face ever again.

veg meme

We were sitting outside at the hotel bar one evening on holiday in Tenerife, a few drinks in, when a cockroach appeared under someone’s table. This was quickly followed by everyone in the vicinity freaking out as though the weird alien thing from Alien had just erupted from someone’s stomach, accompanied by shrieks of ‘kill it!’ and ‘stamp on it!’ I mean, it’s a cockroach. It’s small. It’s not going to kill you. I’m not exactly a lover of cockroaches but we had one in our room for at least half of our holiday because I couldn’t catch it (and the other half refused to try). It didn’t do us any harm.

And I thought, if that was a kitten, no-one would be shouting ‘stamp on it.’ But apparently it’s perfectly acceptable when it’s a cockroach. Does that really make sense? (It didn’t at the time, although I had had a few drinks at this point…) I suddenly wondered how I could be so bothered about injustice to a a cockroach and then eat burgers. And then I thought about the burgers they’d been serving at the pool bar. Which were pretty awful. Which probably means they came from pretty awful cows. Poor cows. I could see their little cow-ish faces, blinking at me. And I thought, this is it, I’m not going to eat anything with a face ever again. (And yes, that does include fish. Whether they feel pain or not, they still have faces.)

Since I really thought about the cows and the piggies as real creatures with faces running round in the fields, I don’t eat them any more. And although I still have times when I really, really want a burger, I tell myself I really, really don’t want to eat a dead cow. And that usually does the trick. I can’t pretend I don’t want one though.

I found out when I got back from my holiday that a lot of wine isn’t actually vegetarian. This may be a surprise to you – it certainly was to me – and potentially a bit of a problem as I am partial to the odd glass of wine. And what do you do at a bar when you order a glass of vino – ask whether the wine is vegetarian? Do you scour the supermarket shelves for a decent wine which has a vegetarian symbol on it? If it doesn’t have a vegetarian symbol on it, do you assume it’s not suitable – which rules out the majority of bottles?

Well I could. But I don’t. Wine isn’t meat. I can’t see it’s face, oinking or mooing at me. This probably makes me a really bad vegetarian. And if that’s the case, I don’t mind being a non-meat-eater instead. Maybe I should change the title of the post.