We are used to thinking that what we see accurately represents our environment, give or take an occasional lapse of attention. We talk about eyes as being windows to the outside world, allowing us to ‘see reality’. However, research has recently shown that the whole picture is not quite so simple. As it turns out, the way we see our surroundings is very much shaped by our knowledge, experience, and expectations. And one of the things that seems to have the biggest impact on our perception is actually our language.

Language appears to be quite powerful: it goes beyond simply making us pay attention to relevant things in our vicinity when communicating with others, and can go as far as making things invisible to us suddenly appear visible. Scientists have shown that pictures of objects, otherwise imperceptible to our human eye, can suddenly be made visible by simply making a person hear the name of the ‘undetectable’ object beforehand.

Perception is shaped by our knowledge and expectations. [original image]

Ksenija2So what does this mean exactly – that we can use words like a magic wand to unravel all the undetectable things around us? Not exactly. Scientists present participants with briefly flashed or highly disguised pictures of objects, which make them indiscernible, in order to test the extent to which language can boost them into visibility. Right before the picture appears on the screen, the participant is strategically played a spoken word, sometimes matching and sometimes mismatching the object to be detected. In systematically doing this, they discovered that, only when the spoken word matches the picture, they are able to jump-start the detection of this object, making it more likely to be momentarily visible.

Okay, so why is this important? We are most likely never going to be in such controlled, lab conditions in our actual lives, so why should we care about this immediate influence that language may have on our perception? The reason these findings are so exciting is because they show that, even at this seemingly basic level, language is doing something very unique. Interestingly, non-verbal sounds or pictures, representing these same ‘invisible’ objects, and presented in the same way, have no such boosting effect. This tells us that there is indeed something very special about language that makes it powerful enough to form expectations and shape our perception to the extent that simple visual information cannot.

What is it exactly that makes language so special and powerful?

Why can simply hearing a word make an object represented by that word appear suddenly visible to us, when even pictures and sounds representing the very same object seem to not have that power. Well, the honest answer is – we don’t quite know yet. Our best guess is that we use and rely on language so extensively throughout our lives, tying our everyday experiences to words and labels, that it simply became highly intertwined with and influential on other parts of our minds, such as vision.

Language influences how we perceive the world. [original image]

This may still sound very science fiction-y, so what can we take from this? What we have seen here is that language, in its prevalence, can have some sneaky and remarkable effects on the way we see the world. We find ourselves in visually ambiguous situations more often than we think – our surroundings are so busy and transient that it is impossible to pay attention to every single thing that is happening around us. So, as much as we think that we are objectively seeing our ever-changing and dynamic environment, it’s good to be reminded of just how subjective and easily influenced our point of view can be.

Featured Image: Clio CJS (flickr)