How is a raven like a writing desk?

Lewis Carroll paints a picture of a world where very little makes sense; an adult wonderland seen through a child’s eyes. Yet, who is to say that what we see and the behaviours that we adopt really make sense to others?

I was reading (not Alice in Wonderland this time) an interesting paper recently that suggested that when natural ambiguities exist (e.g. distance), we see desirable objects as closer than less desirable ones [1]. In a revamp of the New Look theory of the 40s and 50s, the authors embraced the idea that the perceptions we have of the world around us are shaped by what we need from that environment; accordingly we assess our own resources, choosing either to expend or reserve, in order to fulfil these needs successfully. In other words, what we see and how we act is related to maintaining the delicate balancing act of survival.

When our survival is threatened, such as when we perceive pain, our body’s balance or homeostasis is disrupted [2]; in turn our needs are also altered. For example, if we manage to burn ourselves trying to reach the tin of brownies at the back of the oven without a glove (not recommended), the need to stop the burning pain becomes greater than the need to reach the brownies. This need is then reflected in our behaviour, perhaps a dash to the cold tap or the freezer. The interesting thing, following Balcetis and Dunning’s idea, is that perhaps in order to successfully carry out these behaviours, we subconsciously analyse our environment in an advantageous way: seeing what we need as closer and more accessible than the things we don’t.

The impact of our internal state, the homeostasis of our body, seems not only to direct our behaviour but to have an effect on the way our senses are interpreted even before they reach our awareness. Pain is just one example that could impact the way we perceive our environment. With so many factors that can alter our needs on a daily, hourly or even minute by minute basis, it is unsurprising that we see certain things in a pretty unique way. It made me think  that we all live in a bit of a Wonderland and that perhaps it is not the similarities that tie the raven and writing desk together but the way in which they are different that holds the answer.

About Abby Tabor

Abby Tabor BiMAbby has a very posh English accent, and clearly doesn’t like granola bars.  She is working as a Research Assistant with the UniSA BiM team. One of the projects Abby is currently working on is looking at whether inflicting acute pain alters perception of distance, the other is looking at the effect of alcohol on sensory training.

Here is Abby in person talking about her projects.


[1] Balcetis E, & Dunning D (2010). Wishful seeing: more desired objects are seen as closer. Psychological science, 21 (1), 147-52 PMID: 20424036

[2] Craig AD (2003). A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends in neurosciences, 26 (6), 303-7 PMID: 12798599




  1. I have enjoyed, and struggle to fully understand, W.J. Freeman discussion of cogniion in You may find this interesting as well.

    Mike Reply:

    What interesting about Freeman’s discussion of perception is that the sensory cortex it that it is not merely a reception and pass through area of the brain, but it ability to to make sense of the data stream relays on many unconscious complex mechanisms. See

  2. Abby Tabor says:

    I am with you Don, the more I read about this topic the more fascinated I become. There have been some intriguing studies that look at the impact of pre-existing cognitions on perception, delving into our ability to conceptualise and attribute meaning to things in our environment (Teachman, B. A., Stefanucci, J. K., Clerkin, E. M., Cody, M. W., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). A new mode of fear expression: Perceptual bias in height fear. Emotion)

    With my limited experience of qualitative research and as a physio, I have seen that it can be really insightful, adding depth and understanding. What becomes a little trickier to understand is at what stage our perceptions are moulded- how much of a subconscious component is there? By using qualitative research this may be missed. I would love to hear your ideas though, as the interactions between what we perceive, what we feel and how we interact in our environment all ultimately reflect self.

  3. Goodness did I really say that? Clearly I have more respect and love for hippies than I thought. My CURRENT view us that I am sure qualitative research is very useful but I have a very hard time interpreting it – I sure would LIKE to be encompassing….
    I agree though – GREAT topic and great post Abby- really interesting stuff – could people in pain not just respond to benign stimuli in interesting ways but actually perceive the characteristics of their sensory environment differently because they are in pain? Really nice angle.

  4. Jacqui Clark says:

    Hey Abby, so how about some qualitative research?! Senses, emotions and mind are so tightly interlinked and I think we’re moving closer there each week in physiotherapy. Lorimer thinks it’s for hippies (qualitative research that is……yes you did say that, Lozzie…) but I think it’s for the cool and encompassing…..;-)

  5. I’m trying to remember where I read it but it was something to the effect that if you had never seen a ship on the ocean and you saw one for the first time – way out in the ocean – that your mind would have difficulty understanding what it was. Of course, if you knew what a ship was and had seen pictures of it, than your mind would automatically recognize the image you see. What i am learning and understanding is that what we see, is not always what we truly see (or perceive). Great post. I love this topic!