Magic for Dogs, and What That Says about Vision and Consciousness

I just saw this cute video of a professional magician playing tricks with dogs.

It is striking to me just how much the dogs expect the treat to be there, to have fallen to the floor, and also check back with the man to see if he really is going to give them something.

This video reminded me of an article we just read in my Neuroanthropology grad class, A Sensorimotor Account of Vision and Visual Consciousness by Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noe (2001).

We propose that seeing is a way of acting. It is a particular way of exploring the environment. Activity in internal representations does not generate the experience of seeing. The outside world serves as its own, external, representation. The experience of seeing occurs when the organism masters what we call the governing laws of sensorimotor contingency. The advantage of this approach is that it provides a natural and principled way of accounting for visual consciousness, and for the differences in the perceived quality of sensory experience in the different sensory modalities.

I particular think how the discussion of how knowledge and action integrate into seeing is relevant to this magic trick.

When you not only visually track an environmental feature by exercising your knowledge of the relevant sensorimotor contingencies, but in addition integrate this exercise of mastery of sensorimotor contingencies with capacities for thought and action-guidance, then you are visually aware of the relevant feature. Then, we say, you see it (944).

The dog is seeing the treat that must be there because it expects to eat it, and that is why it is disconcerting that the treat has disappeared. So the dog searches for the treat, trying to see it again, and then looks again to see whether the magician might have it or offer another one.

Visual illusions in animals were also subject to a 2013 review paper, Animal visual illusion and confusion: the importance of a perceptual perspective. The authors also offer a popular write-up of their review in Animals could help reveal why humans fall for illusions.

We still know very little about how non-human animals process visual information so the perceptual effects of many illusions remains untested. There is variation among species in terms of how illusions are perceived, highlighting that every species occupies its own unique perceptual world with different sets of rules and constraints. But the 19th Century physiologist Johannes Purkinje was onto something when he said:

Deceptions of the senses are the truths of perception.

In the past 50 years, scientists have become aware that the sensory abilities of animals can be radically different from our own. Visual illusions (and those in the non-visual senses) are a crucial tool for determining what perceptual assumptions animals make about the world around them.

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