‘Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” – Often attributed to Chico Marx, actually a paraphrase of a line the Marx brother spoke in a movie, “Duck Soup.”
How many times have you heard somebody say, “I saw it with my own eyes?” Well, truth is: the faulty logic behind that common enough statement has resulted in one of our society’s more enduring misconceptions.
If you ask folks what they believe to be the best, the most compelling evidence in a court of law, a majority of them are going to tell you “eyewitness testimony.” However, people like law enforcement officers, defense attorneys and psychologists will tell you pretty quickly that’s simply not the case.
Fact is, what we humans think (and would swear) we saw, is quite often not quite exactly what we actually saw. And that isn’t so much a case of our eyes “playing tricks on us,” but rather, our minds doing so.
The human mind is often and actually pretty accurately compared to a computer. In fact, those devices we depend upon so much every day were designed along the concept of how we humans process and store information, with one huge difference – computers do not have emotions.
Our brains are receptors, processors and storers of information which is input through our senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell. And while absent any diminishing disorder, our brains are pretty good at the receiving and storing. It is the processing that sometimes gets a bit dicey.
In the more than 40 years of my doing this crazy stuff to make a living, I have seen the best and worst of my fellow man and I have learned that the way any of us is apt to react to a given set of circumstances is more a function of what he or she brings to the table than it is of any standard of reasonableness.
Simply put, we cannot separate who we are from how we perceive what is happening, and that gets us back to the lying eyes.
Mercifully, there are scads of individuals all over the country who have been and continue to be released from prisons after serving years of sentences for crimes they did not commit thanks to both DNA testing and the men and women of the Innocence Project. And an unhealthy number of those individuals ended up in that predicament because of eyewitness testimony at their trials. Witnesses genuinely believed that they saw something and/or someone “with their own eyes.” Except they didn’t.
Because that of which they were so certain turns out to have been impossible.
There have been scads of experiments over the years which demonstrate this phenomenon, but maybe the most compelling is this one: Seat 10 people from all walks of life in a line of folding chairs within a large room with two doors. Then after a few minutes have passed, arrange for a man to come running through the first door, screaming and waving a pistol at the seated folks, before quickly exiting through the other door.
Afterward, when those 10 people are interviewed individually as to exactly what had just happened, their accounts will differ wildly. The man who ran through the room will be tall and short, hairy and balding, dark-skinned and light complected. His clothing will have been every color within a package of Skittles and the gun he was brandishing will be of every nomenclature short of a howitzer.
Those peoples’ eyes will have provided the same information to their respective brains, but those brains will have processed that information quite differently because their emotions and life experiences will have colored it consistent with the hues of their individual differences. The more emotional the experience – the more shocking or fear inducing – the less accurate will be their recollections of it.
Quite literally, what you see is not what you get.
That is how reflected street lights on foggy nights become UFOs and how bears become Bigfoot.
If you want to see a splendid example of how this phenomenon works is a more lifelike situation, do yourself a favor and watch the 1957 film “Twelve Angry Men” the next time it shows up on one of the movie channels or “stream it” if you are among those into such.
But at least knowing this might prove helpful to you the next time someone starts to relate some tale to you and for emphasis adds that he saw it with his own eyes – or the next time you are called for jury duty.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.