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The Perception Census

How would it feel to walk in someone else's shoes?

Our major new citizen science programme, The Perception Census, is leading the way in cultivating understanding around the unique ways in which we each experience the world.

So far, over 30,000 people around the world have already taken part in this ground-breaking scientific study, making it the largest of its kind, and the first major citizen science project in the world to explore perceptual diversity. 

The study is led by world-leading researchers Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience Anil Seth from the University of Sussex and Professor of Philosophy Fiona Macpherson from the University of Glasgow, as part of the Dreamachine programme. We believe that learning more about the science and philosophy behind these differences could help cultivate humility and empathy for others, helping build new platforms for understanding and communication that are increasingly needed in today’s fragmented and polarised world.

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What is Perception?

Perception is the process by which the brain helps create each person’s experiences of the world by processing sensory information, but little is known about how this process differs for each person. The Perception Census comprises of a series of brain teasers, illusions and games that explore colour, sound, how we experience the passing of time, our beliefs about the world, and much more.

As well as contributing to this emerging field of science, those taking part in the Census will learn more about their own powers of perception and how they relate to others. 

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People aged 18 to 80 from over 100 countries have contributed to this growing body of scientific and philosophical data so far – from Shetland to the Scilly Isles, the US to Indonesia, on every continent except Antarctica, with over 90,000 research activities within the Census completed. Some participants have discovered new insights about their own powers of perception and their unique perceptual abilities, such as Synaesthesia.

Through the study, we’re exploring questions that have baffled, and divided, philosophers and scientists for centuries – including how we perceive time, our beliefs about consciousness, and our sense of self.

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What have we learned?

The insights from the Dreamachine live experience, combined with the ongoing findings and insights from The Perception Census, will support major new studies on the nature of perceptual experience, and provide a unique body of scientific and philosophical research that will be valuable to the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and more. 

Bringing to light perceptual diversity, or our inner differences, could be transformational for society. The findings from The Perception Census will allow researchers to better understand how neurodivergence relates to the differences in perception that exist between all of us, in turn shedding new light on our understanding of the mind and painting a fascinating portrait of human consciousness.

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"The Perception Census has the potential to help society as a whole build new platforms for empathy and communication by embedding a recognition that the way we see things might not be the way they are, and we all experience our shared reality in richly diverse ways. "

Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive & Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, and Co-Director of the Centre for Consciousness Science

Initial Findings

The Perception Census will remain open into 2023, and as one of the largest scientific studies on perceptual diversity ever undertaken, we’d love many more people across the world to take part. In the meantime, here are some of the initial findings from our thousands of participants so far, and the areas we are excited to explore further.

Participants in the Census supported the Purves Cube finding that two identical brown squares on a Rubik’s cube appear to be different shades of brown, however they also revealed that we all experience this illusion differently.

20% of people experienced the illusion strongly, perceiving a much greater difference in the shade of brown than the average. However another 20% of people barely experienced the illusion at all. This result provides fascinating new clues into how the human brain takes light and shade into account when perceiving colour, revealing that this process works in different ways for different people.

These findings could also help explain why the internet was intensely divided over the colour of “the dress” - which to some people appeared to be blue and black, while others were convinced it was white and gold. These newly revealed individual differences in visual perception echo the startling variation in what people experienced in the Dreamachine, forming the basis of a new major study on the nature and diversity of perceptual experience.

View the Purves Cube
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31% of people who participated in the Body and Belief section of the Census reported having an ‘out-of-body’ experience at least once in their lifetime, and 66% of those people said they had such experiences many times. Reports of ‘out-of-body’ experiences – in which a person feels that their consciousness has left their body – have circulated for centuries, but are usually confined to rare events such as moments of spiritual ecstasy.

The number of people reporting this experience in the Census are surprisingly high. Further analysis and more participation from the public in the Census will help the team explain why.

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We asked people how much they agreed or disagreed with different statements about perception and consciousness. Questions which had not previously been asked to a public audience on such a large scale.

36% of people (out of nearly 6000) strongly agreed that the world might actually be very different from how they personally perceive it to be. This raises new questions about the relationship between perceptual experience and reality and when we can trust our experience.

92% of people (out of nearly 6000) think that a creature that can’t speak or understand language could be conscious, and about 42% think that computers or robots could someday be conscious - giving a fascinating insight into the current public view of the role of AI and technology in everyday life.

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Participants in the Dreamachine live experience reported a wide range of emotional reactions in response to the same white light. The most commonly reported emotion – by more than 60% of around 9,000 respondents – was peacefulness, other emotions expressed included amazement, anxiety, compassion, connection, euphoria, grief, isolation, love, optimism, fear, and surprise.

Many visitors described surprisingly profound emotional responses: one even said that the experience had such a positive effect on his mental health that he came to the Dreamachine live experience in Woolwich Public Market in London 27 times.

Many participants in the Dreamachine reported increased wellbeing, and as a result, the University of Sussex are now developing a new research programme to explore how the technology underpinning the experience could form novel interventions for mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.

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"The study will help us reflect on what happens when differences in perception lead to apparent disagreement between people. Perhaps no one is perceiving a shared objective reality, rather, each of us is getting a glimpse of the creations of our own minds."

Fiona Macpherson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience

Take Part in the Perception Census

The Perception Census will remain open into 2023, so you still have time to join in! Every participant really makes a difference, and by taking part, you’ll help our team of researchers shed unique light on the different ways in which we each encounter the world, exploring how this shapes our lives, and who we are.

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