Different perspectives are important

I’ve long advocated that teams diverse in thought are critical to mitigate our own internal biases. What is equally important is how we challenge ourselves to apply the same rigour to things that we know or with which we agree, as to things that we are learning or with which we might disagree. I’ve had a couple of great examples recently on perspectives with maps that I’d like to share.

In June, I was fortunate enough to see a local installation of Luke Jerram’s amazing GAIA. Viewing our planet slowing turning in all its beauty was absolutely stunning. What resonated with me most as someone from the northern hemisphere, was not only how far North the UK is (we couldn’t actually see any further into Europe than the tip of Italy) but just how big the continents in the “South” actually are.

A photograph of the GAIA exhibit a 7m diameter copy of the Earth as seen from space, suspected in a concert hall.  The Earth is covered in clouds but Africa can be seen clearly sitting far higher on the globe than flat maps make us believe it is.
GAIA art exhibit set with North as straight up showing just how big Africa is, and how far North it is. Europe can barely be seen. The photos can never do this justice – it has to be seen in person to really get how beautiful our blue marble is

The 2D maps regularly put the UK at the centre and even on a globe we tend to focus on the places we know with the Southern hemisphere stuck to the base and barely looked at. As a child I never really thought about this, but it was nice to see the Earth from “below” and show my daughter a different perspective. While she knew the Earth was mostly water, seeing the size of the oceans and the scale of the countries really stunned her.

It got me thinking on the way home about how our views are so constrained by the mental pictures we have of our environment, even when we “know” the truth is different. In 2022, I was driving “North” (or up the country) in the UK at sunset, but the setting sun was just on the right hand side of the car, indicated that I was driving westwards. I know the UK is tilted, yet the regular visualisation of maps showing it straightened for weather forecasting made this a surprise – everything in my head was screaming I was driving North despite all the evidence to oppose this šŸ˜‰

This week I saw a great video on YouTube by the always irreverent yet beautifully factual MapMen talking about this exact same thing – why do we always consider maps to point North. It’s well worth 10 minutes of your time.

Even from the thumbnail, looking at the UK upside down is eye opening. Things I hadn’t noticed before and a better concept of distances that my brain had just distorted because it was what I was used to seeing. It remind me of the altered faces where features have been inverted but it looks normal to us when viewed upside down.

Black and white images of singer Adele.  The first is upside down and appears normal, the second is the correct way up but shows that in the first the eyes and mouth had been rotated and the human brain struggles to detect this.
The “Thatcher Effect” – Adele looks normal in the upside down image but when put the correct way up you can see her features have been distorted. (Image from Staffordshire University)

Our brains often distort what we see to fit what we expect – this is one of our innate biases. We need to look at things from a different perspective to shatter some of our illusions and misconceptions. Surrounding yourself with people who think differently and have different life experiences can help with this, but it’s also important to take a step back and challenge yourself to alter your perspective as well as often as you can.

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. Iā€™m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.