The other day I picked up a lot of prints of photos. I had identified 160 photos that I wanted made into quality hard-copies, and I wanted two of each. That’s a lot of pictures. When I picked them up at Shutterbug, the local photography store, they came in a flimsy plastic box, the kind cotton swabs used to come in. It looked like a lot of pictures, even doubled, but the one on the end, showing through the plastic, was clearly mine. I took the pictures home.
It wasn’t easy to get them out of the plastic, so I ended up shaking the box carefully, upside down. A stack of pics from the middle slipped out first. I pulled those out (they weren’t in any particular order). There was a nice shot of Alcatraz, a picture of a boat, a picture of one of the bridges. They all looked nice. Then there was something else. The background of the image was a grainy tan color, like lightly toasted bread, with a pixelated icon in eye-stinging yellow and black superimposed across the center foreground. What? The icon was a closed padlock with a keyhole in black in the center. I flipped to the next photo; virtually the same thing. What was this? I quickly riffled through the small stack I held. About thirty of the photos looked this way. I thought that something had gone wrong with the translation process from my jpeg file to the developer, and the icon was some kind of a warning.
I did what I do best in these situations; I stared to freak out. Why would this happen? Why only thirty? I was going to have to pull out my flash drive and compare file names to the photos and try to reconstruct which ones had been subjected to this weird treatment. And a closed padlock? Didn’t that mean password-protected? How could 30 photos be arbitrarily password-protected? Did Shutterbug’s equipment have some kind of virus? Did my computer? Oh, God, what if it was my computer? What if all my photos were trashed?
While I worked myself into a froth, my visual cortex and some other part of what I call my mind (for lack of a better word) were still working. They registered that there was uniformity to the backgrounds of the iconized photos. They registered that not all of the pixelated symbols were padlocks. Somehow, without any conscious deductive reasoning on my part (because I was busy freaking out) my experience flipped. I was no longer looking at corrupted images with icons superimposed on them. I was looking at photos of icons.
Well, that was very different.
Since I thought I knew what was going on, I flipped over the photos. Sure enough, the file names for the padlocked pictures were “Restricted 01,” and so on. These weren’t my photos.
It took me an absurdly long time – about a minute—to figure out what was obvious. These were thirty different photos of symbols that show up on some electronic device. And they weren’t my photos.
Why did it take me so long to figure that out? (One theory; I’m just not very bright.) Since I started reading A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, by Robert Burton, I am reminded of some things we already knew but tend to take for granted. One of those things is that expectation influences perception.
I had expectations about the photos I would be looking at. If someone had spread fifty random photos across a table, and I had never seen them before, I would have said, “That’s a dog, that’s someone’s birthday cake, that’s Alcatraz and those look like application icons.” My mind, though had a specific category of images it was primed to see in that stack. To make it worse, I had included a picture with a tan background in a vaguely circular shape, which was the shape of the background of the first icon image. The color and the shape met two-thirds of the factors for that image.
We all know that we see what we expect to see (or want to see, or are afraid we’ll see). Stage magicians and actors depend upon this. As a writer, I need to develop an exercise for myself where I jar myself out of what I expect and instead, consciously itemize what I observe. If I had stopped at the first pixelated image, instead of leaping to a scenario of computer viruses, and catalogued it, I could probably have saved about forty-five seconds. And more importantly, I would have felt a lot smarter.
(And yes, I did return the photos to Shutterbug, whose equipment, by the way, if perfect and 100% virus free.)