2-86. Prisoners Cinema


Imagine if you could have Netflix access no matter where you are. Actually, we’re almost there. I counted, and I have 17 devices in my home right now that can play Netflix. Ok, forget all that. Imagine this instead…

You’re in the dark. Total dark. The kind of dark that people don’t often experience. The kind of dark you’d experience inside a cave, where there’s no light at all and you can’t see anything.

Except you do see things. If you look carefully, you may see lights or patterns, or vivid colors. Even with your eyes closed, you continue to see things that you know can’t possibly be there.

This is a real phenomenon that you’ve probably experienced, and if not, you can simply head to the darkest place in your home and close your eyes for fifteen minutes. Pay attention, and you’ll find that you’ve tuned into Prisoners Cinema.

Prisoners locked in dark cells often had literally nothing to distract them. This gave them the forced opportunity to pay attention to what they were “seeing” in the dark. But, since there was no light, could they say to be truly “seeing”?

Yes, and no. Vision is not formed in our eyes, but in our minds. Think of your eyes as the lens of a camera, and your mind as the film, or sensor. If you put the lens cap on, a camera records nothing. But there may actually be something there. Maybe a little static from a loose connection or a faulty pixel. If you apply filters to the blank photo, eventually it will become shapes and colors. And your mind is doing the same thing.

We can’t turn our eyes or our brains off. At least not without medical intervention. As such, our brains are constantly looking to interpret input from the eyes, even if that input is just noise. The signal our eyes send to our brains is pretty noisy, and if we remove all the light, noise is all that’s left. These bits of pseudo-light are called phosphenes, and they make up the basis for Prisoners Cinema.

What the phosphenes become is up to your brain. Our brains are excellent at recognizing patterns. We learn what a “dog” looks like because we see the pattern of light that people have told us means “dog.” By the time we’re adults, we’ve seen just about everything and our brain has words and associations for each pattern. But when it’s just noise, our brain has nothing to work with, though it will keep on trying.

The images you’re “seeing,”in Prisoners Cinema are just an interpretation of noise. One quick way to demonstrate this is to close your eyes and press hard (not too hard!) on one of them. You may see a white light, which of course, isn’t there. You’re “seeing” the signals the pressure is forcing your eye to send to your brain, and your brain knows to interpret signals from the eyes as “light.”

Do blind people see this? At least some of them do. One man lost his sight as a child and could detect no light at all. He said it was like being in front of a movie screen showing a constant array of bright, moving colors. It sounds something like a screensaver, and unfortunately for the man, he found it quite distracting at times. He described it as “visual tinnitus,” which is a ringing in the ears. The eyes were useless, but the brain was still interpreting the best it could.

So while you may not have access to Netflix everywhere just yet, you’ll always be able to watch Prisoners Cinema. What’s being featured is up to your brain.

Music in this episode: BenSound.com

Something approximating what people see as "Prisoners Cinema"

Something approximating what people see as “Prisoners Cinema”


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