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Chapter: Psychology: Perception

Psychology: Perception

Should you find yourself at a karaoke party, performinga song that you think you know by heart, be careful: You might end up falling prey to a mondegreen.


Should you find yourself at a karaoke party, performinga song that you think you know by heart, be careful: You might end up falling prey to a mondegreen.

Mondegreens are misperceptions of common phrases, especially from poems and songs. Thousands of people are convinced, for example, that Creedence Clearwater Revival is crooning, “There’s a bathroom on the right.” The actual lyric is “a bad moon on the rise.” Likewise, when country star Crystal Gale proclaims, “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue?” legions of fans think she’s singing, “Doughnuts make my brown eyes blue.” Even religious music is open to these errors. Countless church-goers unknowingly change “Gladly the cross I’d bear” into a hymn to visually challenged wildlife: “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.”

Mondegreens reveal how active and interpretive perception is. Although perception feels effortless, much of the sensory information we receive is incomplete and ambiguous—so we have to supplement and interpret that information in order to understand what’s going on around us. In many mondegreens, the acoustic input is truly ambiguous—the sound waves that reach you when someone says “the cross I’d bear” are virtually identical to the sound waves that comprise “the cross-eyed bear.” You have to interpret the input. Other mondegreens don’t match the stimuli as closely, showing that people do more than interpret the sensory information; some-times, they actually overrule it. This is true of the mondegreen that gave the phenomenon its name. As a girl, the American writer Sylvia Wright loved the 17th-century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl O’ Murray,” which she perceived as saying:

They hae [have] slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen.

“I saw it all clearly,” Wright recalls in a Harper’s Weekly article: “The Earl had yellow curly hair and a yellow beard and of course wore a kilt. . . . Lady Mondegreen lay at his side, her long, dark brown curls spread out over the moss.” This is a wonderfully romantic image but, it turns out, not what the balladeers intended: Wright may have heard “And Lady Mondegreen,” but the stanza actually ends “And laid him on the green.”

As we’ll see, errors like mondegreens are relatively rare—perception is generally accurate. However, these errors plainly reveal that perception involves interpretation. After all, if you weren’t interpreting to being with, how could you ever misinterpret?

We’ll examine this interpretation process, looking at how it leads to accurate perception of the world, and also how it occasionally leads to perceptual error. We’ll focus on humans’ most important source of perceptual information—our sense of vision—starting with the crucial question of how we recognize objects. We’ll then turn to how variations in our circumstances affect perception. Finally, we’ll con-sider one last layer of complication: It’s not enough just to see what something is; we also need to know what it is doing. We’ll therefore examine how we perceive motion.

Perception feels easy and immediate: You open your eyes and recognize what you see. You understand sounds the second they reach your ears. In truth, perception only seems simple because you’re extraordinarily skilled at it.

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