Perception is generally defined as the process of perceiving something with the senses. Perception, hence, happens through information that is transmitted from the senses like touch, sight or hearing, to the brain. Yet there is a translation that needs to happen between the information that comes through the nerves that connects the sense organs to the brain and what our conscious mind then registers: Our conscious mind perceives in the form of images. This is not only true for sight, but for all conscious perception. Yet it is not images that flows through the nerves, as much as it is not images that are stored on a chip in a digital camera.
The process of translation, of forming the images that we end up perceiving, is inaccessible to us; we don’t notice it happen, and we cannot influence it. And not only is it inaccessible, it is also not unbiased. For the brain to form images from signals, it uses all sorts of experiences that happened before. As I wrote earlier: We hang every new perception onto a scaffolding of earlier perceptions that are stored in our brains. We interpret the world through what we have experienced before. New perception are described by old, stored perceptions.
This scaffolding has been built up over our entire lives and has been strongly influenced not only by our direct experiences but by our education, socialisation, and culture. It defines how we know about the world. If you want a fancy word: it is our epistemological frame through which we see the world.
We don’t see the world in the same way others see the world. Even though the same light might hit their retinas, the image that is formed by their brains is different from the image that is formed by our brain. If we have a shared history, education, culture, the images will be very similar (this is called social perception), influenced by shared narratives (the epistemological frame “hangs” outside the individual and is shared in one society or culture). Yet in the details, our very individual perception is still unique. If, however, we stand next to a person with a very different history, education, culture, they might see something very different; something, even, that we don’t see at all. When we drive through a country that we are not familiar with, the things we see are different from what our friends see who have grown up in that place. There will be things they don’t even notice anymore that for us seem significant.
This is important because generally we are not aware of that. Gregory Bateson already warned almost 50 years ago:
It is, however, not a trivial assertion to note that very few persons, at least in occidental culture, doubt the objectivity of such sense data as pain or their visual images of the external world. Our civilization is deeply based on this illusion. (Bateson 2002:29)
But not just our epistemological frame shapes our perception. Also our motivation does. Why do we step into a situation? To help others? To get recognition for our ideas? To boost our ego? To do what we feel is the right thing?
Before we act (and then every now and again) we should pause and reflect on how we perceive a situation and what might influence our perception. Every perception is biased and full of blind spots. What are we not seeing? What can we not explain?
How can we find our way out of these bling spots? Not by taking into consideration different perspectives. That is a cognitive exercise and it does not influence the image creation processes in our brain. Nobody knows the answer to complex problems and combining different perspectives does not get us closer to an answer either. There are always things we won’t know or don’t see. So we need to work together in diverse groups, try diverse things, and always proceed humbly and cautiously when acting in a complex situation.
What is coming up for you? What are the consequences of all of this? Do you have a practice of pausing and reflecting? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts by replying to this email.
Reference: Bateson, Gregory. 2002.Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Hampton Press.
Nitzan Hermon, from a piece titled ‘Opinion’:
How might we stop before landing on an opinion? Can we hover above and hold space for ourselves to look at things differently? When we position our thinking at the right altitude, we do just enough philosophizing to open the aperture but still point it at reality.
When acting, we must converge, narrow down thoughts to a plan. Otherwise, we will never leave our heads. Meta-oscillation between convergence and divergence is crucial for integration and practice that resects [sic!] our particular complexity.
Why have I added this to my Paper Museum? For me the space between making a decision and acting on the one hand and keeping open to what is possible to do in the moment – maybe holding off just a little bit longer to see if something else becomes available – is a space that we hardly ever explore enough. We tend to jump to opinions, answers, plans. Is it an oscillation – or should we simply say that we should see not-acting as action more often?
The question ‘how might we stop before landing on an opinion‘ reminded me of Douglas Adam’s instructions on how to fly in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.
But there is some good advice in the Guide:
You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else then you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.
So interesting how this is analogue to the importance of putting yourself into a state of confusion in order to fly when facing complex challenges!
Invitation to a pause by Simon Berger. Public Domain. Source