Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Reality 101"

Many students who recently completed a course at the University of Minnesota reportedly made very positive comments about that experience. Two examples:

Amazingly, I haven’t become depressed by this information, but rather am enthralled at my new understanding of the role I can have in the world that we all live in.

The last few weeks of the semester I’ve been the most consistently and profoundly happy I have ever been, while simultaneously being barraged with the most depressing possible information. Thank you – this class changed my life.

Sounds good, eh? Worth looking into? Well, a very condensed version of the course – it’s called Reality 101  – is available online in the form of an Earth Day presentation by the teacher, Dr. Nate Hagens, given this last Earth Day in Rochester, Minnesota:

Highly recommended. Nate is the best Big Picture presenter I know of. Having achieved an honors Masters degree in finance at the University of Chicago, he became a successful Wall Street trader. However, finding that merely making (and spending) money was not making him happy, he left the Street, spent a few years in travel and independent study, then got a PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, “where he studied the relationship between debt and energy on the supply side and the evolutionary underpinnings of behavioral obstacles to changing our consumption patterns on the demand side.” He now lives on a small farm in Wisconsin.  His personal website:

Looking back at my last slowdown post, in February, I note having said about “reality:” In general the way we see and understand any given situation will be conditioned by what we bring to the situation. Reality is filtered through the lenses of our fears, hopes and previous life experiences.

So here is a test of your perception of reality (or of one small piece of it):

Of course, smart people like you, when presented with such a “test,” will smell a trick being played, so instead of immediately answering the question, you held up a card or maybe even a ruler to measure and compare the horizontal and vertical lines, finding that they are exactly the same length.

Still, I’ll bet that the vertical line still looks  longer to you. As it does to me. It looks really significantly longer. That’s because we are WEIRD.  

That’s WEIRD in the sense of our having grown up in a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic country. The illusion is a cultural effect. Studies have shown that the eyes of people from some non-Western cultures are much less susceptible to the illusion, much more likely to immediately perceive the reality to be equal line length.  See:

So, I don’t know how well Nate’s students would handle the horizontal-vertical illusion test; but it seems their perception of reality (“the world that we all live in”) has been radically transformed. Here is one of Nate’s graphic representations of reality, which when I first looked at it reminded me of the horizontal-vertical illusion graphic, having pretty much the same shape.

The graphic is a graph, a timeline representing amounts of fossil (carbon) energy available to humans over a span of sixteen thousand years. For various reasons, including the vastness of the time scale, it is hard to know exactly where we are on that vertical pulse. In his presentation, Nate has attached two red stars, saying We might be here, We might be there.  I’ve taken those stars away just to give you a reality-check puzzle. Go see the presentation to see if your perception of that reality is close to his: It comes fairly early in the show.

Note: One of the research teams investigating cross-cultural differences in visual perception had this to say: “We predicted that people in different cultures would be differentially susceptible to geometric illusions because they have learned different, but always ecologically valid, visual inference habits.” I predict that if you go through Nate's entire presentation – it’s too short and too long, go slow to take it all in – and then go back to the energy timeline graph, your perception of the reality it depicts will have changed. (Quote from

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